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Is It Guilt or Shame?

Is It Guilt or Shame?I started this column about guilt — why it stalks me. Why, no matter how hard I try to be a good girl, I can’t get rid of the knot in my stomach that says I’ve been busted, just like I was with a bottle of vodka at band camp in high school. However, upon doing a little research on this topic, I don’t think guilt is so much my problem as shame.

They are related but different.

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, shame expert Brené Brown explains:

The difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the differences between “I am bad” [shame] and “I did something bad” [guilt]. Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our behaviors. We feel guilty when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do against the kind of person we want to be. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful. When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends to others, or change a behavior that we don’t feel good about, guilt is most often the motivator. Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its effect is often positive while shame is often destructive.

We often think of shame as something experienced by victims of child abuse or some other trauma. However, Brown says that it is something we all experience. You don’t need hypnosis to bring painful memories into focus. Shame hangs out in familiar places like parenting, body image, money and work, health, sex, aging, and religion.

Boy does it ever.

This last past weekend, I felt intense shame as a mother.

I wanted to watch the paddle board races a few blocks from our house on Saturday morning since I’ve just taken up the sport. So I woke up my daughter a little after 9 and said we were going.

The tantrum that followed was bloody ugly. As I sat stunned, I realized then why I haven’t pursued anything like this — any activity that would require them to move quickly out of bed on the weekend — in the last, oh, eight years. It’s not worth fighting the tantrum.

It became a pattern when I was depressed.

I was trying so hard not to cry in front of them — and to carry out the very basic mom responsibilities without breaking down — that I would go the path of least resilience. I figured that sobbing in front of the kids did more damage than skipping church or going kayaking — and their whining pushed me over the edge — so they got to hang out on the couch and acquire gold and dark elixir for their villages in Clash of Clans. Now that I’m a little stronger, I’m feeling the shame.

My therapist used to help me sift through my guilt by explaining the difference between a conviction and a condemnation.

Conviction: I want to be a better mom. I want the kids to look back on their childhoods and have a few other memories than watching 12 variations of gangum style on their iPads and learning how to twerk courtesy of Miley Cyrus.

Condemnation: I’m a horrible mom. I’ve messed up terribly for 13 years. I’ve raised rude and obnoxious people that won’t be able to afford a mortgage because they will have so many therapy bills.

What do you do from here?

Brown identifies four elements of shame resistance: “Name it. Talk about it. Own your story. Tell the story.”

People with high levels of shame resilience can recognize what triggers shame for them. They can decode the message we’re all fed that being imperfect means being inadequate. They share their story with people they trust, and they ask for what they need.

My shame story is essentially my depression story, the dark energy that has impacted the most intimate corners of my life: my marriage, my parenting, my work, my body image, and my health. Seven years ago, I began to tell it, and therefore have been liberated from part of its hold. But teasing apart the guilt from the shame is where I struggle. What can I change? Better discipline, asserting house rules, blocking Miley from getting into our home. What do I have to accept? That I have failed, big time, in the last 13 years, but so has every other parent. That imperfection doesn’t mean inadequacy. That all I can do is try my best one moment at a time.

Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.


Is It Guilt or Shame?

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Therese J. Borchard

Therese J. Borchard is a mental health writer and advocate. She is the founder of the online depression communities Project Hope & Beyond and Group Beyond Blue, and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. You can reach her at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Borchard, T. (2018). Is It Guilt or Shame?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 1 Sep 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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