Shame Depends on How We Believe We are Viewed by Others Due to our Behavior; Guilt Involves the Awareness of Having Done Something Wrong.
YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED that many people use the words shame and guilt interchangeably. This is regrettable because, from a psychological perspective, they actually refer to different experiences. Guilt and shame sometimes go hand in hand; the same action may give rise to feelings of both shame and guilt, where the former reflects how we feel about ourselves and the latter involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else. In other words, shame relates to self, guilt to others.
Looking first to the dictionary definitions, we see the following:
- Guilt. A feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
- Shame. The painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, hurtful, etc., done by oneself or another.
As noted before, in everyday language people tend to use these words more or less interchangeably. From a therapeutic perspective, the distinction can be most important and useful. Many people crippled by shame have very little capacity to feel guilt, for example. In order to feel guilt about the harm you may have done to somebody else, you must recognize him or her as a distinct individual. A person who struggles with interpersonal relationships, or who has a mental illness—such as attachment disorder, borderline personality disorder, or bipolar disorder—might not feel true guilt even if he or she were to use that word to describe a feeling.
Many people who display narcissistic behavior often suffer from profound feelings of shame, but have little authentic concern for other people; they don’t tend to feel genuine guilt. The lack of empathy found in narcissistic and other personality disorders makes real guilt unlikely since guilt depends upon the ability to intuit how someone else might feel.
When shame is especially pervasive, it usually precludes feelings of genuine concern and guilt from developing; the sense of being damaged is so powerful and painful that it crowds out one’s feelings for anyone else. In such cases, idealization often comes into play. Other people are then viewed as perfect, “the lucky ones” who have the ideal shame-free life we crave. Envy may be at the root of these thoughts.
Shame says, “There’s something inherently wrong with me that isn’t wrong with everyone else.” It tells you that you’re worthless and incapable. Therefore, you must find some way to prove your own worth. At its worst, shame says, “I am outside the love of God.” A person with a shamed sense of identity reads the Scriptures and usually feels condemned. Unfortunately, far too many believers are feeling dirty, worthless, ashamed of themselves; convinced their offenses are beyond the reach of the cross. Having such a poisonous attitude about yourself can lead to belief that you are unclean and therefore unworthy to approach God and have the living and intimate relationship that He wants to have with you. Shame prevents us from intimacy with God because it makes us feel unworthy and distant from Him.
Shame causes us to make statements like this:
- I often think about past failures or experiences of rejection.
- There are certain things I cannot recall about my past without feeling guilt, shame.
- I seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.
- I feel inferior.
- There are aspects of my appearance that I cannot except.
- I am generally disgusted with myself.
- I feel that certain experiences have basically ruined my life.
- I perceive myself as an immoral person.
- I feel that I have lost the opportunity to experience a wonderful life.
Healing from shame involves learning to get our sense of value and significance from God. We need to get out from behind the secrecy of this idea that we are unsalvageable because shame is grown in secrecy. Remember, we’re only as sick as our secrets. We have to start counting our blessings and develop a grateful spirit.
There are some significant differences between guilt and shame. Guilt is what takes place when a person realizes their failure. The source of guilt—”conviction,” if you prefer— is the Holy Spirit. To be sure, true guilt is a good thing. It helps us judge our behavior against the laws, it allows for restitution, punishment, and making amends. It allows us to pay for what we have done. False guilt involves sin we’ve repented of and asked for God’s forgiveness, but where the devil still pushes us to feel unreedemed. He wants us to see ourselves as the sum of all our bad behaviors and nothing more.
With guilt, we are motivated to confess. Get it out in the open. Find a way to make amends for our actions. Shame, however, wants us to internalize. Stew in our complete badness. Feel horrible about who we’ve become, while forgetting who we now are in Christ. The goal of guilt is ultimately forgiveness. Shame would rather we feel pain and total condemnation. The end result of dealing effectively with guilt is freedom and growth. The point of shame is, quite simply, bondage. Someone who takes ownership of his or her guilt has the potential of giving their body over to God as a living sacrifice. We become open to doing good. Sharing our testimony. Preaching the Good News. On the other hand, shame owns and controls us. The cycle of shame leads to anger, bitterness, resentment, self-hatred, and depression. There is no peace with shame.
The Day Guilt Was Born
Shame and guilt did not exist initially in the Garden of Eden. But no sooner had Eve defied God and taken a bite of the forbidden fruit, these emotions fell over her like a dark shadow. Their silhouettes followed her until her dying day. She would be buried in their cold presence. And as Adam followed in his wife’s footsteps, two more shadows were born. Guilt and Shame are conceived in their rebellion. We are painfully acquainted with them today. We would love to part with them, but they won’t leave us alone. Although these two emotions are related, they aren’t identical. Guilt is typically linked to an event: I did something bad. Guilt says, “I made a mistake; please forgive me.” Shame is tied to a person: I am bad. Shame says, “Please forgive me, I am a mistake.” Guilt is the wound, whereas shame is the scar it leaves. While guilt is seeing what you’ve done, shame is seeing yourself as a complete failure because of what you’ve done. Guilt allows us to look at the sin (the offense). Shame involves focusing on a deep-seated sense of self-denigration.
Shame and False Guilt Create Strongholds
If we continue to ruminate on our past failures, it will wear us down spiritually. Satan takes over, aiming at getting us to see a distortion of who we are—especially who we have become through Christ. Satan wants us to look at our past failures so much that we begin to see ourselves as nothing but failures! He doesn’t want us to see who we truly are. He’d rather keep us thinking about all the bad behavior until all we see when we look in the mirror is a dirty sinner. The complete opposite of who and what we really are in Christ.
In fact, shame is one of those things the Bible speaks of as an imagination that must be cast down. 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” An imagination is an image in your mind that is inaccurate. If you see yourself as a failure, when you’re actually a washed-in-the-blood child of God, you’ve fallen victim to an imagination that must be dealt with.
Shame is very destructive to relationships—especially with God. There is a good reason Satan wants us to feel like failures and dirty sinners who cannot be redeemed. Feeling that way keeps us from confidently approaching God’s throne and having an intimate relationship with Him. Scripture tells us that God wants us to draw near to Him with a clean conscience that has been freed from dead works. We’re not expected to forget the wrongs we’ve done, especially if such behavior led to dire consequences, such as broken hearts and destruction of relationships. Hebrews 9:14 says, “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God” (NIV). Timothy speaks of this “pure conscience” (see 2 Timothy 1:3).
Shame and false guilt are based upon deception, which is the opposite of truth. So how are we supposed to worship God in Spirit and truth if there are imaginations hanging around in our minds that are contrary to the truth? But how do we defeat or overcome these bear traps? First, we need to stop dwelling on our past failures. Are you ignoring them? Am I? Not really. When we dwell on them as if they’re not forgiven and forgotten by God, we are ignoring the lie that our sin has not been adequately dealt with and washed away. In other words, we are actually meditating on ghosts! Sins that no longer exist. Micah 7:19 tells us, “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (NIV).
We must deal with our shame by reminding ourselves of how God has dealt with our guilt.
Disassociate, Don’t Disavow
Why do you think God wants us to be new creations? Because He wants us to no longer be in bondage to our past. We’re to disassociate ourselves with the people, places, and things that were a part of our sinful past. Paul succinctly writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV). Psalm 103:12 says, “…as far as the east is from the west, so far he has removed our transgressions from us.” Not only are we to accept that our sins are forgiven, we need to leave them there and press forward toward the things God has for us. Philippians 3:13b-14 says, “…forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (NIV). God has been merciful toward our unrighteousness, and says “…their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Hebrews 8:12).
Coming from a past history of active addiction, and involvement in 12-step programs, I can’t help but refer to the following words contained in the Ninth Step Promises: “We don’t regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.” This is especially applicable in recovery. I recall hearing from an old timer at a meeting years ago, “…we have to get to the point where we stop seeing our past as a liability and start seeing it as an asset.” Whether we’re working with others in recovery or sharing our testimony with unbelievers, our past experiences—good or bad—are tools, indeed assets, for helping others. This is a practical application of the doctrinal concept that we have become a new creation through our faith in Christ Jesus.
Because we were designed by God to feel guilt, we all should have the capacity for it. But sometimes we are not clear about its underlying motivation. If your fear of getting caught is greater than your desire to heal your relationships, then you are suffering from an unhealthy guilt and it is likely to be with you for a long time. Trust me, I’ve been there. Shame feels bad as well, but it is different from guilt. Shame is the painful feeling of disconnection from others that comes from feeling defective. You may think you feel bad because of things you have done, but shame is a bad feeling that you have about yourself, and you had that feeling long before you committed any of the things you think caused it.
Guilt and shame are strong emotions that we need to acknowledge and deal with before our relationships will go well. To manage guilt, we must do things differently. Being honest about wrongdoing, repenting of it, and seeking forgiveness are things we can do in response to guilt. To deal with shame, we must actually be different. That is, we must be vulnerable and experience what it is like to share our feelings honestly with others in ways that change us and help us be a better person.
All of us walk around with some degree of shame. We can’t talk ourselves out of it, or even have someone else explain to us why we shouldn’t feel it. No one can be cured of shame, but we all can experience healing. When we are courageous and vulnerable enough to open ourselves up to God’s grace, we will experience what it is like to feel complete acceptance down to our very core. Courage, vulnerability, and acceptance heal shame. And experiencing that with God heals it in the most powerful way.
God forgives you; you must learn to forgive yourself.