Understanding Shame: Is Shame Different from Guilt?

How Shame and Guilt Differ

There are times when I make mistakes in my relationships and think, I really should have listened more. I should have been there for that person. I need to remember next time to ask how they’re doing, instead of just launching into a story about my week.

But occasionally, my thoughts or actions toward someone will really throw me off. I’ll spend days thinking, how could I have done that to them? What kind of person am I? Will they ever forgive me? Is this even something I should be forgiven for?

When I feel guilty, I can see where I went wrong and be motivated to fix it. When I feel ashamed of myself, things turn inward. It’s not just that I made a mistake; it’s that I am a terrible person.

There are two powerful feelings at play here, and I need to know how to manage both with faith and kindness toward myself.

Know the Difference Between Shame and Guilt

Guilt and shame are two emotions that often show up together, but they affect us differently, and they require different responses of us.
Brene Brown, psychologist and author of Daring Greatly, explains it well:

“Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.” Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.”

When you say or do something you regret, notice how you feel. Do you want to right the wrong? If your focus is on acknowledging and changing a behavior, you are responding to guilt. If you can’t get past how terrible you are for hurting someone, you are stuck in a shame loop.

No One is a Mistake

I know the feeling of being “beyond repair” when it comes to my flaws and shortcomings. But it’s just a feeling. However strong it seems at times, it isn’t the truth of the matter. The truth of the matter is, no one is a mistake.

Every one of us is made in the image of God, the Creator of the Universe. God has done a lot of things, but He has never made a mistake.

Not to mention that he can help me turn things around in my relationships. If it’s His power I’m relying on, I can change.

You may not feel like you can ever get it right with others on your own strength, and that may be true! But with the love and grace of God helping you, you can change and let go of whatever is holding you back, and whatever is weakening your relationships.

If you struggle with your feelings about God, or your belief in God, that’s okay. It doesn’t change the fact that He’s there for you, and wants to help you be freed from your shame. Something as simple as saying a prayer, or asking someone to pray for you, can turn things around in ways you never expected.

Shame Can Be Overcome

Along with striving to keep the faith, there are other things you can do to overcome shame:

Shift your focus: The next time you make a misstep in your relationship, take some time to process it. Ask yourself: what can I do to be a better friend for this person? Ask them the same question. Moving your focus off yourself and to your loved one will go a long way, because you’re no longer feeding shame and other self-focused emotions.

Ask for help: Letting people know that shame is a struggle for you is a great way to make sure you don’t get stuck in feelings of shame.

If you’re not comfortable talking to your friends and family yet, we have amazing mentors who are not afraid to talk about shame, and can help you make a plan to counter shaming thoughts with healthier thinking.

I’m glad you’re making an effort to work through your feelings of shame. Know you’re not alone and that we have all struggled with shame or guilt. The good news is, there is always hope!

Have you ever blown it so bad that you can't forgive yourself?  Read this guest blog by Amanda Turner. It will change the negative thoughts you're having on forgiving yourself.

Dawson McAllister
Dawson McAllister, also known as America's youth pastor, was an author, radio host, speaker, and founder of TheHopeLine. McAllister attended Bethel College in Minnesota for undergraduate work where he graduated in 1968, began graduate studies at Talbot School of Theology in California, and received an honorary doctorate from Biola University.
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