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Shame and Guilt

What's the difference?



All of us have done things caused us to feel the guilty. Sometimes, the feeling of shame is involved. For those who are working on escaping the trap of pornography, understanding these two emotions is critical.


In an article by Robert Weiss Ph.D., MSW, entitled “Guilt = Good, Shame = Bad” Posted Jan 06, 2014 on the Psychology Today website, he writes the following:


Dr. Brené Brown makes it clear that feeling guilty can absolutely be a healthy thing, as this emotion can and often does lead to positive behavior change: “I feel badly about my behavior, and I’d like to fix the situation and behave differently in the future.” Shame, on the other hand, is incredibly unhealthy, causing lowered self-esteem (feelings of unworthiness) and behaviors that reinforce that self-image: “I am a bad person and there’s nothing I can do about that, so I might as well continue behaving badly.” In short, guilt is potentially a very healthy feeling, and shame is not.


Unfortunately, as mentioned above, feeling shame neither encourages nor motivates positive behavior change. In fact, Dr. Brown’s extensive research into the issue has revealed an inverse relationship between shame and the belief that one is capable of changing for the better. Her research also found that shame-based people often behave in ways that reinforce their shame. In other words, shameful feelings lead not to connection and reaching out for support, but to ill-advised behaviors that bolster feelings of shame. This creates a downward spiral of bad behavior, shame, more bad behavior, more shame, etc. So when people behave in ways that go against their values, feel badly about it, and work to behave differently in the future, shame is not the motivation. Guilt is. So, once again, guilt is potentially a very useful and socially informed emotion, while shame is not.


Whatever approach is taken, developing shame resilience is a process of reaching out to supportive others by sharing one’s story and experiencing empathy. Shame thrives in the dark, and it withers in sunlight. Talking about shame with supportive and empathetic others kills it, while keeping it a secret helps it grow. In fact, one of Dr. Brown’s most important research conclusions is that not discussing a shaming event can be more damaging than the actual event. So keeping secrets about shame can actually be more damaging than the shame itself. But when people share about their most difficult experiences - the experiences that leave them feeling defective and unworthy - with caring, supportive, empathetic others, even long after the fact, they feel better. Their stress levels decrease and their mental and physical health improves. It’s just that simple.


In the paragraph above, Dr. Weiss discusses the importance of sharing one’s story and experiencing empathy. This was exactly our experience as ecclesiastical leaders counseling hundreds of young single adults trapped in pornography use, and is one of the main factors in stressing the need for a Mentor who can provide the needed opportunity for the participant to offload shame and understand the learning that comes through appropriate guilt. Being able to forgive oneself for what has caused shame or guilt and moving ahead is part of the emotional key to escaping the trap.

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