Guilt, Embarrassment and Shame

Guilt informs us that we’ve violated our moral compass; our sense of right and wrong. After we’ve done something bad it prompts us to reconcile and seek forgiveness. There may be feelings of regret afterwards, but over time they dissipate.

Embarrassment makes us feel like a line has been crossed – we feel picked on, stupid, ugly, worthless or humiliated. Although it’s unpleasant at first it doesn’t tend to make us think that we are personally defective or unworthy. It’s temporary.

And then there’s shame …

Shame is a negative evaluation of ourselves; a belief that we’re intrinsically flawed. It’s not about a single action; it’s about who we “are”. It’s primarily a feeling that says “there’s something wrong with me” and therefore “I’m unworthy of love or belonging”.

Guilt prompts us to ask for and receive forgiveness, whereas shame prompts us to hide and it refuses to be forgiven.

The anxiety of guilt is about the hurt we’ve caused someone or something, or the punishment that’s imminent. But the anxiety of shame is about the fear of potential isolation and abandonment, i.e. if we do not meet the expectations of valued others, we risk their rejection.

So at the heart of shame is a fear of loss of connectedness to others.

The response to shame is either:
1. Move toward – we develop patterns of compliance and approval seeking, becoming people pleasers often at the expense of our sense of self
2. Move away – we distance, avoid and hide
3. Move against –  we persuade, cause conflict, or attempt to change our surroundings to conform more with ourselves

The antidotes of shame are courage, compassion and connection.

Courage is taking action, even if you have fear. Doing it scared. You neutralize shame when you’re bold enough to bring your shame into the light and say it out loud to yourself and others. It loses its power.

Compassion is sensitivity toward emotional suffering. Treat yourself as you would the “me next to me”. We are our own worst enemy, so discipline yourself to speak kindly to or about yourself, instead of berating yourself with accusations or name-calling.

Connection is about meaningful links or associations with others. Shame relies on secrecy and hiding. It loses its power when you reach out. Reaching out to others builds solidarity.

The pandemic might have us physically isolate, but don’t disconnect.

by Safari, adapted from Faithwalking

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