Life Beyond Shame

A Way to Think about Shame

Shame. We all have some. Shame’s gotten a bad rap, for good reason, but shame can also be helpful. Life Beyond Shame is mostly about the not-so-helpful side.

Shame and guilt are words often used interchangeably. Guilt bells go off when I don’t visit my ailing mother. They clang in my head and heart when I tell my best friend I never said the mean things about her that a gossiper told her I’d said. My genuine side is troubled by feelings of being out-of-balance. Guilt tells me I’m outside what I perceive to be my integrity.

I can respond to guilt signals by going to visit my parents more or changing my expectation of how often I should make those visits. I can tell the truth o my friend and repair the damage to our friendship, thereby acting according to my value of being honest and kind. I can get right with myself again.

On the other hand, I could decide visiting my mother or being kind and honest with my friend were not of high value to me. That would quiet the guilt.

In other words, when my behavior isn’t congruent with my values, I can change either my behavior or my values to get them back into balance and get rid of the guilt bells.

Not so with shame. While guilt is about behavior, shame is about personhood. It isn’t that my behavior is wrong. It is that I, myself am wrong. I am defective in some way.

The experience of being exposed as “wrong” makes me want to hide. The feelings can be so overwhelming, and disempowering, my brain can’t think about anything but getting myself out of the situation. I want to disappear. But I can’t. I can only feel naked in my exposure. Where can I go from there, except, perhaps, to hide once again after the initial burning has passed.

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