Guilt vs shame? Most of us struggle with knowing the difference – often when we feel either , we feel that it is deserved. Guilt and shame often lead to regret – so it is crucial we understand the differences and learn to respond to our regret rather than become reactive to it. We must have done something wrong and now we need to fix it. This usually causes us to over-extend ourselves, go against boundaries that we had in place and sacrifice self-care. Shame often holds us back from our healing process. One resource to learn more about guilt vs shame is Brene Brown’s contributions including this TEDtalk .
Genuine vs False Guilt & Regret
First; what is genuine and false guilt? Genuine guilt is the guilt we feel when we have done something that goes against our personal values. If I see myself as an honest person, and I hold speaking the truth as essential to being a ‘good person’; then when I lie, I am acting out of line with my values. Genuine guilt then follows, whether or not I am caught in this lie, because it is my code that I have broken.
Genuine guilt is the felt when we have broken our own values. We feel it regardless of consequence.When this guilt surfaces, it is very important that we look at our value system. To avoid the shame spiral that can swiftly take over our thinking we must befriend our guilt. We use this befriending to identify what values we have at stake, and reconcile within ourselves through committing to acting on our values going forward. If you haven’t done a values assessment or feel like you need additional help click here or the support of a therapist can be helpful as well.
Understanding False Guilt
This is the guilt we feel when we have broken another’s values, but not our own. Most of us want to do the ‘right thing’, and when we feel we keep doing the ‘wrong thing’, we arrive at the understanding that something is fundamentally wrong with us. When we start to understand that our personally held values might not be the same we can reframe being bad and instead understanding we are not meant for everyone.
Earlier in my journey towards wellness, I frequently felt guilty for what I judged as “irresponsible” behavior like failing to meet deadlines. I assumed that I was going against the value of ‘hard work’ and began to think of myself as lazy, unreliable, and more (SHAME SPIRAL!). When I looked closely at my values and their rankings I quickly noted that ‘hard work’ or working all the time is a cultural value, not personal.
I recognized I actually felt worse about how others saw me than I did about ‘not being a hard worker’. I was able to shift into genuine guilt around recognizing that I value my service to others. This made the guilt more workeable because I no longer was working towards a value that wasn’t mine. I went from thinking I was fundamentally flawed, to being motivated by my value of service to others. Quickly I began meeting my deadlines and honoring my commitments. And I understood where I needed boundaries to protect myself from over working so I could be of serice to others. The awareness helps; and if nothing else, I can at least break free from the shame by holding true to my values.
Questions to Consider
If awareness is an important factor than reflecting on times you have felt regret or guilt is crucial. First reflect on a past expereince of guilt and read the above definitions of genuine vs false guilt. Look at if you are focused on expectations of others or of yourself. If you were following your values what would the action steps look like to remedy the guilt & regret? Understand that you likely have different values than the ones imposed on you, that is okay. When we can embrace our whole self instead off sacrificing pieces to what should be – we find our people to respect and push us closer to our authentic self.
John Pitman, APSW