Guilt Is Always Better Than Shame
April 14, 2021
This happened early in my career. I was presenting something important to my firm’s senior management team, and midway through the presentation, I froze. The key messages that I wanted to convey got messed up and what was supposed to be a moment of recognition ended up being an unmitigated disaster(in my eyes at that time!!).
“I am completely useless. How could I have messed up my presentation so badly? I am an imposter, and the senior guys have seen it. My career in this place is finished,” was my self-talk as I finished my presentation.
Over the next few weeks, I suffered from a deep sense of Shame. I had let myself and the people who believed in me down. For some time, I even felt embarrassed facing my colleagues who were there with me on that fateful day.
Time is a great healer. Eventually, over a few weeks, the hurt healed. I learned my lessons and worked on improving myself. The fears that I had were all misplaced. There was certainly no impact on my career, and I became better from that experience.
I share this story to bring home a significant point about failure.
We Want to experience Guilt more than Shame.
Let me explain what I mean by this.
Whenever we encounter failure of any sort or commit a mistake, we experience two different emotions. One is of Shame, and the other is of Guilt. Even though we tend to use these two terms interchangeably, they are quite different and distinct.
Shame And Guilt
Shame is the intensely painful feeling of being fundamentally flawed, feeling defective, and inadequate. We often feel Shame when we think that we are not good enough, smart enough, worthy enough, competent enough, beautiful enough, fit enough, etc.
On the other hand, Guilt is a feeling of discomfort about something we think we have done that is objectively wrong. Guilt paradoxically is the ability to step back from a negative situation, observe objectively about what we did wrong,
Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I have done something bad.”
Shame is a focus on the self, while Guilt is a focus on behavior. Something is wrong with me, vs. I have done something wrong. Shame damages our self-esteem and puts us into a vortex of negativity that leads to depressive thoughts. Guilt, on the other hand, is more empowering. It helps you objectively identify what you have done wrong and course correct.
Taking the example of my fiasco in the presentation, I was experiencing Shame more than Guilt.
My self-talk after that experience was, ” I am not good enough; I am an imposter.”
In the same scenario, Guilt would have been, ” It was stupid of me to let the importance of the occasion get to me. I should not have let my fears and emotions take control of me.” If I had felt guilty, my focus would have been on my behavior.
Why is it essential to make this distinction between Shame and Guilt?
Dealing With Failure
Psychologists suggest that Shame is characterized by the desire to hide and escape, whereas Guilt is characterized by the desire to repair.
When I messed up my presentation- my internal language was all “I am bad, I am incompetent, I am not good.” The negative language of “I am………” is a shame trigger that makes you see yourself as a loser, a failure.
Knowing the distinction between Shame and Guilt will help you switch your internal dialogue from self to behavior. Instead of the “I am incompetent” self-talk, you will say to yourself, ” I should not have let my emotions run riot. I should have prepared better.”
It is a simple switch, but it completely changes your perspective on dealing with failure. You begin to realize that you are not flawed; your behavior is. You can then start to take the necessary steps to repair the situation.
Here are some examples of how you can shift your language from a focus on self(Shame) towards behavior (Guilt)
- (Shame)I am not smart enough.->(Guilt) I haven’t even tried or given my best shot yet.
- (Shame)I am a loser.->(Guilt)I need to work harder.
- (Shame)I am a jealous person. ->(Guilt)I need to focus on my accomplishments.
- (Shame)I am stressed and unhappy->(Guilt)I need to ease up and be more grateful(Guilt).
I’ll leave you with a small mental exercise. What are the ” I am……” shame narratives you have in your life. Can you try switching those narratives from yourself to focus on your behaviors?