Shame is debilitating. It ruins relationships, thwarts growth, and destroys hope. It can even masquerade as various other problems—one of them is guilt. But shame and guilt are not the same. Guilt is the bad feeling you have for doing something you should not have done. Shame is the bad feeling of regret for being an inadequate person. Guilt is about what you did; shame is about who you are. Both are bad feelings, but it’s important to know the difference.1
The Bible says guilt exists to help us. Paul talks about a “godly sorrow” that leads people to repentance and produces good things in their lives (2 Corinthians 7:11). This is a healthy guilt, because it is motivated by love. It motivates you to do the right thing to restore damaged relationships.
But not all guilt is productive. Guilt not motivated by love is rooted in fear. This kind of guilt is not about making amends, or figuring out the loving thing to do to make things right in your relationships. It’s about saving your own skin.
Because we were designed by God to feel guilt, we all should have the capacity for it. But sometimes we are not clear about its underlying motivation. If your fear of getting caught is greater than your desire to heal your relationships, then you are suffering from an unhealthy guilt and it is likely to be with you for a long time; because it is a form of self-punishment that substitutes for restored relationships and will keep you stuck.
Shame feels bad, too. But it is different from guilt. Shame is the painful feeling of disconnection from others that comes from feeling defective. You may think you feel bad because of things you have done, but the truth is shame is a bad feeling that you have about yourself, and you had that feeling long before you committed any of the things you think caused it.
One of the things that makes shame so difficult to deal with is silence. By its very nature, shame seeks to hide itself, and us with it. At least with guilt, you can speak about it, confess it, and even manage it if you know how.
The path to overcoming shame is courage, vulnerability, and acceptance.
Both guilt and shame are strong emotions that you must acknowledge and deal with for your relationships to go well. To manage your guilt, you must do things differently. Being honest about wrongdoing, repenting of it, and seeking forgiveness are things you can do in response to your guilt. To deal with your shame, you must actually be different. That is, you must be vulnerable and experience what it is like to share your feelings honestly with others in ways that change you.
All of us walk around with some degree of shame. We can’t talk ourselves out of it, or even have someone else explain to us why we shouldn’t feel it. No one can be cured of shame, but we all can experience healing. When we are courageous and vulnerable enough to open ourselves up to God’s grace, we will experience what it is like to feel complete acceptance down to our very core. Courage, vulnerability, and acceptance heal shame. And experiencing that with God, heals it in the most powerful way.
1. The first psychologist to make this distinction between guilt and shame was H.B. Lewis (1971) Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. New York, N.Y.: International University Press.↩