Guilt and Shame are Not the Same

Introduction

I have been feeling ashamed that I haven’t written a post in a while. My shame was useless! Instead of helping me, it only led to more procrastination – e.g., playing a few extra solitaire games before I finally started writing this. Perhaps the reason that I tend to feel shame instead of guilt is that, when I did something wrong as a child, it was made clear that I was “bad.” Back in the day, when you did something wrong, you were typically shamed by being yelled at and spanked and made to feel you were bad. That was the norm.

How is guilt different than shame? Shame hurts us and puts us down by making us feel less worthy as a person. Guilt, on the other hand, is what we feel when we regret some behavior. In other words, feeling shame involves feeling bad about who we are, whereas feeling guilt involves feeling bad about what we’ve done. It is much easier to deal with improving our behavior than feeling like you’re an idiot… an ass… you fill in the blank!

In a situation like this, mild guilt would’ve been much more useful to me. I probably would have gotten back to writing much quicker.

 

Implications for parenting

The importance of this distinction comes up over and over when raising children. For example, you want to teach your children to be responsible and clean up a mess they’ve made. Or, if they have hurt someone’s feelings, you want them to feel responsible and learn not to do this again. What’s important here is that children learn that some behavior needs to change and not to repeat it, versus feeling bad about themselves.

If you read any of my previous posts, you’ll have seen my beliefs applied consistently, even if it wasn’t explained in terms of shame vs. guilt. You’ll note that I’m often talking about giving the child choices and setting limits (techniques for guiding their behavior), while treating the child respectfully (e.g., upholding the worth of the child instead shaming her). Thus, I’ve strongly advocated against negative punishment such as spanking and yelling harshly.

What makes shame so harmful, and why do we do this to our children?

Shame is a nasty business! Shame is about the person! It’s when people are made to feel horrible about themselves for things they have done.  “What kind of slob would leave such a mess!” Or: “Look at how you hurt your friend’s feelings. You’re so mean!”

Usually, an adult makes a child feel ashamed of herself without knowing it and this happens because the adult doesn’t know how to communicate with the child. Our yelling and spanking, instead of having the intended result (of shaping our children’s behavior), just makes them feel bad about themselves. Thus, shame does NOT have as any use in parenting. It makes both the adult and the child feel awful. Shame can lead to such things as procrastination, sneaky behavior, and an insecure child.

What makes guilt more useful?

Guilt is what you feel when you take responsibility for a behavior and regret it. The focus is the behavior, not the person.  For example, when you go to the grocery store and you leave the grocery cart next to a car instead of putting it where it belongs. Or you have a bottle that should be recycled and you throw it in the regular trash, instead. I don’t know about you, but I feel guilty when I do those behaviors. (For you, other behaviors may be more guilt-inducing.) Guilt can be a good thing, as long as it is proportional to the bad behavior. It helps us to remember to be responsible.

It’s useful to keep in mind that, just as there are different levels of bad behavior, there are different levels of guilt. For most instances of a child’s misbehavior, a fairly mild level of guilt is probably most appropriate. Excessive guilt, out of proportion to the behavior, can lead to feelings of shame and thus be counter-productive.

Conclusion

Over time, it can make a big difference if your discipline is more shame-inducing than guilt-inducing. If it is mostly yelling harshly or spanking the child, it will lead to her feeling bad about herself. Although children growing up in an environment like this will often feel shame, their behavior may not change.

On the other hand, if discipline is more focused on helping a child understand what she did wrong and setting limits, it’s going to teach the child responsibility. The child will feel some guilt and learn to be responsible.

Shame and guilt are not the same. Hurting the person making them feel bad about who they are as a person doesn’t cut it in my book.

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