We have written about how guilt can be a mental health issue when it is out of proportion to the things that caused it in terms of how guilty a person feels or how long they continue to feel guilty. Often, we may confuse guilt for shame. How is shame different from guilt and how can a person deal with being continually ashamed of what they do or did, where they come from, who their friends are, their beliefs, and simply who they are?
What Is Shame?
Shame is an emotion that we feel when we break our own social norms. Humiliation, a sense of being exposed and small, being unable to look another person in the eye, wanting to simply disappear all go with shame. Shame has an inward focus that makes us take something external and make it internal and all about us. While we may feel guilty about not finishing a task on time we do not necessarily believe that this makes us a bad, incompetent, or distrustful person. When we become ashamed of our action the shame makes this about us and how we are really incompetent, untrustworthy, etc. As a rule adolescents are more prone to humiliation an shame than adults, women more so than men, and those who have been brought up in strict and frankly shaming households more than others.
Normal Versus Unhealthy Guilt
If we do something as simple as cheating in a sporting event, we may feel guilty. If we are prone to unhealthy guilt, we will not be able to let it go. Sometimes a person’s tendency to feel guilty is so fine-tuned that they feel guilty about things for which they really are not responsible. “If only I had helped so and so” they would not have gotten into trouble may make sense with your children, a close friend, or a co-worker or employee. But when the person involved is not someone you should be or feel responsible for, any sense of guilt is generally excessive. The same applies when you have given advice to someone repeatedly and they are ignoring it. Guilt becomes unhealthy when it tends to cloud every interaction and every relationship. When a person’s sense of guilt starts to define them as a person it begins to move into shame.
Shame and Guilt Cause and Effect
Constantly feeling responsible for the actions of others often makes us feel guilty when we believe they have failed at something. We blame ourselves. An overdeveloped sense of responsibility may simply come from taking on too many jobs at once and having trouble asking for help. Sometimes a person with a tendency towards obsession and compulsiveness adds a sense of responsibility and excessive guilt to their list of obsessions.
When a person has pre-existing or concomitant mental health issues, they may be more prone to experience excessive guilt and overwhelming shame as well. A continual sense of dissatisfaction (dysphoria), outright depression, or a frank obsessive-compulsive disorder can all cause normal guilt and shame to escalate and tendencies toward irrational guilt and shame often feed mental health disorders making them worse.
How to Deal With Shame
The first issue in dealing with shame is to recognize it and differentiate it from normal guilt. When you feel ashamed you will feel inadequate, unworthy, undeserving, and want to crawl away and hide. This is clearly different from feeling good about yourself with the exception that you feel bad or guilty about something that you have done or neglected to do. When you recognize that what is going on is shame you can deal with it.
The next step is to talk about your shame. Shame is often not rational and constant debilitating shame is virtually never rational. Talking with someone you trust, a member of the clergy of your faith, or a professional lets you bring the shame to light. Much like when we deal with depression or conditions like PTSD it helps to be able to recall old memories of events or relationships that are often the source of the problem. When a person says the things out loud that caused and are still causing shame it often becomes clear to the person that they no longer need to keep feeding their shame but rather let it go.
Another important thing is that by talking about shame it can become clear that someone of something in you life is constantly feeding your shame. The answer then is to get rid of those things or relationships that are taking you down!