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Individual Therapy Tips – Guilt versus Shame
Here are some individual therapy tips from a Utah counselor about knowing the difference between guilt and shame. Oh, how this is important! There is a difference and most people get it wrong. Knowing the difference between these two can help you avoid misunderstandings, personal mental health issues and discomfort. It can also help you learn how to become emotionally healthy and have more emotional intimacy with your spouse (Related Article: Emotional Intimacy – What It Is And How To Get It). It will also help you deal with pornography use in a more healthy way (Related Articles: Pornography Counseling: Find Recovery And Healing and Pornography Counseling – How Secrecy Fuels Addiction and Couples Therapy – Pornography Problem).
Most people believe that shame and guilt are synonymous. They are not, however.
What Is Guilt?
Guilt is when you feel remorseful or sorry about something that you did or said. You feel this way because you did something unhealthy or mean or thoughtless towards yourself or someone else. It does not, however, make a judgment about your character, worthiness or value. Guilt only looks at the raw data of what you did. It might, however, see that what you did was severe, but it doesn’t let you also think that you are bad because you did it.
Example of Guilt – “I made a mistake by using pornography. That was a big mistake. I wish I didn’t do that. I’m still a good person and want to do better”.
In this example, guilt recognizes that you made a mistake, and also recognizes that inherently you are a good person. You doing something unhealthy doesn’t cancel out the fact that you are a good person.
What Is Shame?
Shame takes things a step further and makes them personal – against you. Shame takes your mistake and then judges your value based on the fact that you made that mistake.
Example of Shame – “I made a mistake by using pornography. That was a big mistake. I’m such an idiot for doing that. Why can’t I just stop using porn?!”.
In this example, shame comes out when you call yourself an idiot. Your value changed supposedly because of your actions. Shame also comes out when you ask the question why?. This why? Brings with it contempt and disgust for yourself. That is shame. It’s unhealthy.
How Do I Embrace Guilt and Let Go Of Shame?
We need guilt. Guilt can be healthy and direct us to do what we believe is good (Related Article: Emotions 101: How To Be Healthy and 3 Principles Of Emotional Health). Shame however, is unhealthy. It only brings us down and doesn’t give us direction to change, just a punishment for doing wrong.
Guilt would say, “I made a mistake and I am still a good person”, whereas shame would say, “I made a mistake and therefore I am a bad person”. It’s ok to recognize that you made a mistake and that you are still a good person.
Keep in mind that guilt doesn’t use the word but. Rather, it uses the word and. For example, guilt doesn’t say, “I made a mistake, but I’m still a good person.” It says, “I made a mistake and I’m still a good person”. Both are true. One doesn’t cancel out the other.
Guilt also doesn’t justify actions that are unhealthy or dismiss them. It takes accountability for them and owns them. Guilt recognizes when you make a mistake. It also recognizes how severe they are, but it doesn’t let you use a value statement or worthiness judgment against yourself.
The use of the word should or shouldn’t perpetuates shame. When you say to yourself, “I shouldn’t use pornography”, the subtle message you are sending is that you are using pornography and are bad because of it. This is how using the word should creates shame.
Replace it with “I want to…” or “I don’t want to…”. For example, “I don’t want to use pornography” sounds softer and doesn’t bring shame like saying that “I shouldn’t use pornography”. Or, you can even say, “I wish I didn’t…”. That has the same effect of changing shame to guilt.
Make an appointment for individual therapy and learn how to apply these tips to get rid of shame and embrace guilt. We have Utah counseling center offices in Orem, Spanish Fork, South Jordan and American Fork.
Written by Triston Morgan PhD