THE CAUSES OF GUILT AND SHAME
People often use the terms shame and guilt interchangeably, but there’s a difference between the two.
Unlike shame, guilt can be a healthy emotion as it helps us acknowledge our mistakes—mistakes that we’re in need of correcting. Guilt helps us think of ways to resolve our wrong-doing, and to rebuild our relationships with others and with God.
Shame, by contrast, is a distorted belief that we are inherently unworthy of love. Consequently, when we feel shame, we feel the need to be punished or penalized. A shame-based person doesn’t know how to feel healthy guilt.
Both shame and guilt are falling short of a standard. Guilt results from violating a rule, law, or commandment. We feel guilt for failing a moral standard. Shame is related to dishonor, and it leaves us feeling unacceptable and bad.
We can feel both guilt and shame for the same act. When we tell a lie, we may feel guilty because we know that lying is wrong. We may feel shame for not being strong enough to overcome this weakness by telling the truth.
Guilt is relatively easy to deal with, but shame is more difficult, because is deals with the painful feelings we experience when we don’t live up to the expectations of others. Feelings like remorse and embarrassment come from a belief that we have let others down.
Societies have guiding values or principles. A person may feel the shame put upon them for going outside the community values and the expectations of others. We can feel shame when we violate our cultural and religious values.
Guilt and shame can function independently of each other too. This occurs when we do wrong, but we aren’t ashamed over it.
At times we may feel shame for things that are morally irrelevant. We may feel shame for coming from the wrong background, for being poor, for not having finished school, or for making poor moral and social choices. One of the greatest areas of shame is over our own body. We may feel shame when we’ve not controlled our physical or sexual appetite. This shame lets us know that in some way we don’t measure up to a standard.
Guilt and shame can also be opposite of each other. The Bible warns us against being ashamed of Christ. We usually don’t understand the mental and emotional consequences of this. Believing and being identified with Christ is a morally right thing to do as a Christian—yet, until we’ve matured in our faith, we may be reluctant to profess our faith, or feel guilt for not standing up for Christ when given an opportunity to do so.
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