It took many years for me to understand that guilt and shame are two entirely different things with vastly different impacts.

It took many years for me to understand that guilt and shame are two entirely different things with vastly different impacts. The decades I lost to abuse can be chalked up to shame. The feelings I had about getting out and redirecting my life can be labeled guilt. Both of these feelings inappropriately colored my view of myself, and caused me to make decisions based on bad information.

Guilt vs. Shame

Dr. Brene Brown describes the difference between guilt and shame this way:

Guilt says, “I did something bad.”  Shame says, “I am bad.”

That is the clearest and most direct way I had ever heard those explained and it opened up my ability to examine how those two dynamics played out in my life.

Survivors of abuse are motivated primarily by shame. Not only is there shame attached to “allowing” the abuse, the abuser uses shame as a lever. According to Captain Crazy, I was bad. In fact, I was bad in every possible way. I was a bad mother, a bad wife, a bad career woman, a bad Christian, a bad friend, a bad socialite, a bad cook, a bad housekeeper…you name it, I was bad. After my escape, I was also bad. I was bad because of things he perceived I did “to” him, including divorcing him.

In unpacking these themes and disentangling myself from the concepts of guilt and shame, I found there were three consistent themes in removing their power over my thoughts and reactions.

#1. Know and Honor the Differences Between the Two Concepts

Shame kept me stuck in the abuse because I figured I was bad so I must somehow deserve what I was getting. Shame also formed the narrative which perpetuated the power of the abuse itself. “Since I am bad, then I must submit myself to this behavior which must be for my own good.”

Guilt, on the other hand, is what drove my decisions immediately after escape. While shame still lurked, as I began to own my story, the shame began to dissipate. That’s when guilt took over. I felt guilty for ending the marriage, guilty for “making” my kids live in a single parent household, guilty for having stayed home with my children even though that’s what he said he wanted, guilty for needing short term financial support. You name it, I felt guilty about it.

Because I didn’t understand how the shame and guilt colored my decisions, I just knew that my every move made me feel “yucky.”

#2. Once You Develop Your Ability To Recognize And Label Your Own Feeling As Either Shame Or Guilt, Ask Yourself Why You Feel That Way

Use the “5 times why” method, which is asking “why” 5 times to help drill down to the true root of the feeling. Sometimes, it will be related to societal expectations. Sometimes, family expectations. Other times, your shame-based reaction will be linked to something you didn’t anticipate, like a long-forgotten childhood experience. No matter how you are able to make the correlation, it’s very helpful to see what actually makes you tick. When you can treat this like a bit of sleuthing, it makes the experience less personal and more about how to redirect yourself down a healthier path.

#3. Treat Yourself as a Valued and Beloved Friend

If a friend came to you with a terrible problem or was feeling awful about him/herself, how would you react? Would you pile on and say, “You should feel bad because you are an awful person?” Likely not if you value that individual. Too many times, we are harder on ourselves than we would ever be to another, even going so far as to call ourselves names. More than once when someone I love refers to themselves as “dumbass” or “idiot” or something else disparaging, I have said, “Don’t talk about my friend that way!” It gets their attention and helps to focus on the idea that we need to treat ourselves as valuable.

Taking this approach to unraveling guilt and shame while learning to treat myself as a valued friend helped me make huge strides in my recovery. It doesn’t happen overnight, but by following a formula you can retrain your thought patterns.

Life is simply too short and too valuable to keep yourself rooted in the heaviness of guilt and shame.

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Aubrey Cole

Aubrey Cole

I survived a quarter century of psychological, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. When I got out, I vowed to help others do the same and founded the Emotional Abuse Survivors Network project in 2012. Now, I offer hope and healing to others on their journey as they rediscover themselves. My forthcoming books, Bodies in the Basement and Define Winning, chronicle my experiences, escape, and recovery. There is nothing so special about me that others can't emerge and thrive.
Aubrey Cole

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It took many years for me to understand that guilt and shame are two entirely different things with vastly different impacts.

It took many years for me to understand that guilt and shame are two entirely different things with vastly different impacts.

It took many years for me to understand that guilt and shame are two entirely different things with vastly different impacts.


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