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  • Writer's pictureZenho Chad Bennett

Shame is Small but Guilt is Big

Beginning several years ago, Brene Brown released her compelling research about vulnerability and shame in two Ted Talks which have collectively received over 26 million hits. In the second talk she brushed on differentiating between shame and guilt saying “Guilt is focus on behavior, shame is focus on self”.It’s important to know the difference between guilt and shame because if we’re able to uncouple them, we’ll be on the road to discovering where we are playing small in our lives and where there are choice points to step into playing a bigger game.

Let’s begin with shame. Its very nature is to keep us small, hidden, powerless and disconnected. And more importantly, it relies heavily on our history and activates predictably patterned and reactive behavior, often stemming from negative beliefs about ourselves. These beliefs are called “introjects” and we can think of them like chunks of unchewed food that we swallowed too quickly without tasting them. Perhaps the most common introject is “I’m not good enough”. We assumed this when we were young and if we’re courageous enough to explore these introjects at their roots, we discover much to our surprise that we unconsciously choose to keep the cycle going. We continue to swallow what we shouldn’t by interpreting much of our reality through a lens of “not good enough”.

But guilt is of another vein. It is an indicator that we have stepped out of integrity, a powerful “red flag” that may help us to choose more evolved behaviors. When we admit “I did it”, we can check ourselves, perhaps apologize, and own up to parts of us that are self-centered. Guilt can help us play a bigger game reminding us to choose antidotes, namely thoughts and behaviors that serve our relationships and well-being rather than isolation and self-harm.

Feel for yourself the difference between owning a mistake fully with integrity in juxtaposition to thinking we’re an asshole because we’ve always been an asshole! If we are not aware of the difference, the valuable awareness of the mistake may quickly collapse into shame which is not only a missed opportunity to show up better in life but it provides a damaging reassurance that we are unlovable. Brown’s research sums it up: shame is highly correlated with addiction, eating disorders, depression, suicide, and violence. Guilt is inversely correlated!

Unfortunately, Brown goes a little too far as she points the finger to a shaming culture as the cause of shame. While we agree that shame is so prolific in our culture that it is literally in the air we breathe, she fails to emphasize our responsibility to see where the roots of shame are experienced which is the only place we can resolve shame. The unfortunate result of blaming our culture- our parents, our media, whatever- is that we may be less able to take responsibility for our own experience of shame which means we lose the precious opportunity to understand that we unconsciously do this to ourselves. At worst case, because of the nature of shame to collapse us into hiding, we may actually cast out what we are guilty of and pass along the responsibility on to the culture. This is still playing small.

Take responsibility for my shame, you say? What? But…but…

Understanding this takes a good deal of patience and practice. But consider the cumulative cost on ourselves and community from simply blaming “culture” for shaming us, which is not only untrue but has predictably negative outcomes. When we blame we perpetuate the belief that we are victims (powerless, worthless, disconnected, etc) which means we are perpetuating our own shame. Ouch! And perhaps even more tragically, when we look outwards for cause, we negate the opportunity to see our part in the cycle which is what keeps the shame pattern anchored in place. This keeps us playing a small when we could be stepping into a much larger game!

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