Shame vs Guilt.

I love Brené Brown’s work.

For those of you who don’t know, Brené is a researcher and her areas of speciality are  vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. You can read more about her here.

I have been greatly helped and encouraged by her books and very much enjoyed her Living Brave course last year.

The one area that I have struggled with is her concept of shame. In reading her books I have always been left with the belief that guilt is good and shame is bad. Now I don’t know if that is intended meaning, or if that is my own filter, but that is the perception I have come away with.

Recently I have been reading Karla McLaren and her book, The Art of Empathy. If I am reading right what her research suggests, then Karla doesn’t believe that emotions are good or bad and defining them in such a way isn’t helpful for us holistically.

She looks at guilt in the original meaning which is as a legal term. Either I am guilty of something or I am are not. She talks about it being a legal term rather than an emotion. She instead addresses the emotion of shame.shame2

Brown teaches guilt is about me feeling bad about something I have done and shame is about me feeling bad about who I am. Shame is bad, guilt is good.

This doesn’t really sit right with me.

Instead I now see it the following way which as Karla suggests, is a more mature outlook of who I am and what I feel. I can take responsibility for the negative about myself as well as the positive, without it tearing apart my self-esteem.

Guilt is about whether I have done a thing. Healthy shame is when I feel bad about what I did.

My guilt allows me to take action, ask forgiveness and seek restoration, healthy shame allows me to recognise my guilt.

It is important to the development of empathy to allow ourselves to feel shame. If I turn off shame, I turn off my capacity to understand how my actions/words affect others (or myself).  I need to allow my emotions to visit shame, I just need to put a boundary around them from setting up camp there!

I can feel ashamed of an action, without feeling ashamed of who I am as a whole person. I can do something wrong, and take responsibility for that thing, without it defining who I am across every area of my life.

If you would like to learn more about this concept then this video explains it well.

Here are some thoughts from the video I want to pick up on.

What Shame does-
(5:37) A lot of us learnt about shame, by being shamed. By parents, peers, authority figures, the media- Oh my gosh the media shames you all the time. You know, that you are a smelly, hairy, whatever your weight is, is not the right weight, that you’re not the right kind of woman, you’re not the right kind of man, your muscles are wrong, your ideas are wrong, you know media is just on us all the time.   It’s important to shut off media, because they don’t care about you.

(6:09) We hear shaming messages all the time, and if we had parents, peers and authority figures in our lives that didn’t understand shame, and almost nobody does they would shame us…
(6:48)… The work with shame, is to make sure shame is no longer responding to messages that you no longer agree with or messages that were enforced upon you by people who didn’t care about your well-being.

(7:34) To understand when shame comes up, where does this message come from and do I agree with it? Because if you have internalised a message your shame’s job is to make sure you don’t break the boundaries of others, and you don’t break the boundaries of your own internal moral structure. If there is garbage  in your internal moral structure, your shame doesn’t know that, and it says, ‘ok that’s one of the things that I am supposed to be helping you live up too.’

(parenting example)

How it works-
(8:19 )What you want to see is a child feeling their own sense of shame and then you stop shaming immediately. Because they’ve got their shame going. which you want to see in another person is that their shame arises appropriately and they figure out what the thing is.

(9:32) It is important to understand what shame does and then you can know how to use it.

(work example)

(10:20) So when you see the shame of another come up, stop shaming immediately and let them feel the effect of their own shame in their own body, without your shame coming over them.


I am much more content with this concept of shame.  I don’t know about you, but I have had those moments where I have either been reflecting on an event, or am in the middle of it, and shame at my behaviour/words washes over me.

We all feel shame differently and for me, It seems to start at top of my head and will wash over me like a warm nerve tingling blanket. I know when I experienced shame, because I have a physical reaction to it. Other people might feel a hot flush rise up, their heart may beat, they may get sweaty, produce more saliva or feel angry. You will have your own shame reaction.

There are two times I experience this feeling.

The first is when shame comes upon  me because of the way someone else behaves or speaks to me in a situation. My own anxiety, insecurity or ways I have been wrongly shamed in the past rise up to answer it- These are the types of messages that I need to ask myself do I agree with?  Or have these messages crossed an internal belief or boundary that I don’t actually hold about myself?

‘You’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re vain, you’re a bad person, you’re a bad mother, you never do anything right.’

These might be shame messages other people have said about me, the garbage that Karla talks about above at the 7:34 min mark.

This is also the unhealthy shame that Brené  (I think) is talking about. But my next experience of shame is where Brené’s definition comes unstuck for me. Because I feel both shame situations in exactly the same way– my physical reaction is the same for both. Which tells me that it still shame. It is still the same emotion.

However one is from an external source meeting my own internal weakness and owning something against my will that I might not really agree with or I may not be guilty of.

The other is my internal strengths rising up to own and take responsibility for my external actions/words and owning my guilt about it.

Here is what I mean.

The second type comes upon me  because I can see my own behaviour or hear my own words and it clashes with my sense of self, my moral compass or my integrity. I already know that my own behaviour/words are misaligned with who I am, and who I want to be.  I have broken my own internal boundaries. The wash of shame highlights an area that I WANT to take responsibility for, because I am guilty of that action or those words.

Or someone points out to me that I have crossed their sense of self, moral compass or integrity and I have either unwittingly (or deliberately) broken one of their internal boundaries and I decide I WANT to take responsibility for that because I am guilty of it.

And this is where I struggle with Brene’s definition.

The first is unhealthy shame, because I am taking ownership of the crap/shame that others are putting on me.

The second is healthy shame, because I am taking ownership of the crap/shame that I am doing to others or myself. I have crossed someone else’s boundary or my own.

But they are both shame.

I am going to leave it here for today, and give us both a chance to process it some more. I am not fixed on this, I am very open to discussion, and I am sure as I learn more about myself and others, the definitions may change or be added to again.

But today, right now, I am liking what Karla McLaren has to say about the emotion of shame, and I no longer feel threatened or held captive by my experience of it. Rather I see it as an emotional tool that can be used to set better boundaries, for both myself and others.






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