Guilt vs Shame

Uttering ‘I am ashamed about…’ was about as close as I got to shame. I never knew what shame really meant.  I think I substituted it for embarrassment.  Often, I used guilt in place of shame.  I learned the difference recently:

Guilt is the emotion you feel you have done something bad, made a mistake – gone against your values, beliefs, etc.  The behaviour is separate from the self.  Guilt can be positive and leads to sincere apologies and changes in future behaviours.

Shame is the emotion when you feel you are bad and not worthy.  You associate your behaviours with who you are rather what you do.  Behaviours become difficult to change or improve if a person sees the flaw within her/himself.  It leads to a fear that we are not worthy of love and belonging.

Yeah, I have a lot of shame, more shame than guilt.  Guilt can turn into shame.  Someone can attack you or repeatedly bring up things you have done and this can turn into shame even if you felt guilt initially.  How weird is that?

I realised that in my story that I recently wrote about in Worth (part 1) that Shame was along my side, enjoying the ride.  (Thanks to Kara for introducing me to the concept of FOG (fear – obligation – guilt) by Susan Forward and Donna Frazier)

When I was 10 years old I failed my first social studies exam of the year.  My mother was furious and she used FOG which led me to study for the next one only to disappoint her by getting a score of 98/100 because it wasn’t 100.  Since 10 years old and until I graduated high school (17 years old) I received really good grades.  Before this, my grades were marginal (mostly Cs and Bs and few As).

Somewhere during my school years I began to associate being a good daughter with getting As and being bad with Bs and lower.  Shame was there every step of the way.  It was shame that forced me to study not the love of learning.   And it was shame that brought me good grades which allowed me entrance into university and to get loans to pay for it.  Shame did me good, right?

I failed my first semester/term at university.

When I moved to campus, I was away from the FOG (fear-obligation-guilt).  My study habits did not stick with me when I was alone.  It was a hard first term and I pulled myself together because fear entered again – this time through the fact that if I don’t get my grades up I might not graduate and some companies don’t hire without a certain grade point average and ultimately that path lead back home (my greatest fear).  I wasn’t going back to the FOG.

Much (not all) of the shame I have stems from my experiences in FOG.  I often wonder if I ever felt guilt for anything I did at home?

And what about the Narcissist?  What’s the N’s relationship with Shame?

xx T Reddy

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4 thoughts on “Guilt vs Shame

  1. Thanks for this post, T Reddy. I think that I lot of how I felt that I thought it was guilt was shame instead. It can be quite hard to tell the difference between the two, because in Nfamilies feelings are never expressed so attaching the right name to the emotion can be quite a task. I had a similar experience at University. My parents bar was a bit lower than yours: B’s were ok. So I was a A&B’s girl and in my first year at Uni I failed catastrophically. I read somewhere a few years ago that that is quite a common phenomenon for children who grow up in families like ours. I’m not sure quite what the relationship of the N with shame is. My theory is that they use their image that they create for themselves as a way to not face their own feelings.

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    • It is amazing how feelings are not talked about. Not talk about it means not dealing with it or letting children figure it out for themselves so it can be controlled by them? I’ve been trying to look at the relationship between shame and Ns lately.

      That is so interesting how that is a common occurrence among ACoNs, thank you for sharing that. When I failed, my parents had gotten a letter from the uni and never said anything about it to me. I only found out a few years after I graduated when I mentioned it to my mom. She so lovingly threw it in my face when I opened up.

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  2. I think I tend towards shame vs guilt. Mostly because I work so hard at being conscious about my choices when it comes to how I treat others. But how I view myself? I am harsh and unforgiving and treat myself like crap more often than I like to admit.

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