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Shame vs. Guilt

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In Writing Shame, Elspeth Probyn says, “different affects make us feel, write, think, and act in different ways” (2010: 74).

Henri Bergson also said, “Sensations can be said to be twice, thrice, even four times as intense as another sensation of the same kind” (1960: 1). You can say this is the difference between shame understood as singular (an intensity) and shame experienced in plural terms as intensities. Especially when it is felt alongside other emotions like guilt, anger, rage, or fear.

For example, shame experienced privately and alone, is not the same as shame that is put on display for others to see. Although shame doesn’t require a witness for it to be felt as painful, the gaze of another person amplifies the intensity of shame.

Sara Ahmed writes, “Shame as an emotion requires a witness; even if the subject feels shame when she or he is alone, it is the imagined view of the other that is taken on by a subject in relation to herself or himself” (2015: 106). Sara Ahmed goes on to say, “If we feel shame, we feel shame because we have failed to approximate ‘an ideal’ that has been given to us” (106). We feel shame when we fail to meet cultural expectations or agreed-upon norms.

This can bring both shame and guilt, but how do we know the difference?

Both shame and guilt are “conceptually similar” (Crowder and Kemmelmeier, 2018: 398). This does not mean that the two are exactly the same.

Instead, Brené Brown describes shame as a self-focused emotion. Others have used the term, self-conscious emotion (SCE), which touches on how the self perceives the self. Other self-conscious emotions include pride, humiliation, embarrassment, and guilt.

With shame, we focus on ourselves, whereas with guilt the focal point becomes about behavior and actions are taken. The difference between “I have done wrong” (guilt), and “I am wrong” (shame). Or as Brown quotes in her Ted Talk Listening to Shame, “Guilt: I’m sorry I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry I am a mistake”.

Ahmed (2015) adds, “Guilt implies action, while shame implies that some quality of the self has been brought into question […] In shame, more than my action is at stake: the badness of an action is transferred to me, such that I feel myself to be bad and to have been found or found out as bad by others” (105).

Curt Thompson says that we develop shame as early as 15 months, whereas guilt is developed around age 3 or 4, sometimes earlier for some. He explains this by saying that “guilt requires more time for the brain to develop. 1) a child needs to know there are other people in the universe outside of itself, and 2) a child needs to recognize that they’ve done something that is wrong. This awareness that something has happened that puts them and others at risk is important. They start to make sense of how their actions create a gap between themselves and other people,” says Thompson.

Thompson goes on to say, "When we feel guilt, we want to fix things to maintain closeness with others, we don’t want to lose the bond, so we do the right thing to make it better." For instance, we say, “I’m sorry.”

“In guilt, we repair the rupture as soon as we can. Shame is the opposite,” says Thompson.

He explains that this is because while guilt makes us turn toward the person we’ve wronged, shame makes us turn away from them because turning toward them heightens the sense of shame. It only makes us feel more worthless to face them.

This is why shame is really stubborn. Shame does not like to apologize. It refuses to see itself as wrong. Others have gone down the pathologizing route and connected this with narcissism, saying that narcissists are actually riddled with shame.

I’ve written about how this has been true for me. When I was most stuck in my shame, I was unable to step into accountability. I only focused on myself. It was easier to point fingers and blame others and repeat stories about me being the victim. I think we all do this to some extent. I know I still have these patterns that I’m working through.

It’s important to note that Brené Brown shares how shame can also move us toward others. And Sara Ahmed also says that even when we turn away from others, we still end up turning away from ourselves, so we find ourselves in a “double bind.”

Thompson says with shame, “We have the sense that there isn’t anything that can be done to bridge the gap.” He goes on to add that “when someone is in shame, they cannot find the solution to fix things by themselves, they need community support and empathy. I also think some people just don’t care to fix things, and we need to be honest about that also being okay. Some things need to just crash and burn. There won’t always be a bridge to build after a breakdown.

In any case, shame needing community can be difficult, because in some cases, what was done is enough to get people cast out of their community, and in other times, people want to isolate. Getting close to others is difficult, even when they can or want to help. Brené Brown talked about this. She said how her participants in a study found it difficult to go to therapy to heal their shame because they were ashamed of needing to go to therapy in the first place.

In Shame: A Brief History, author Peter Stearns (2017) suggests that some people are more prone to shame, while others are more prone to guilt. The distinction for Stearns lies in socio-cultural differences such as personality and proximity to power.

According to Stearns, dominant groups situated higher in socio-economic status with more confidence, are the individuals more likely to experience guilt (likely, because their privileges have them doing the most).

While “submissive” groups or “those held to be inferior” (Stearns’ words, not mine), were said to experience more shame. Said differently (and bluntly), white rich people experience more guilt, while Black and Brown people experience more shame. I don’t know if this is entirely true. I would refute this and say the opposite might be true. And if it is true, it’s true only because of how oppressed people are type-cast as more or inherently shameful. It doesn’t take rocket science to know that. Melissa Harris-Perry’s work on stereotypes of Black women tells us this. This has also to do with Sara Ahmed’s reading of emotions as sliding over some bodies while accumulating on others.

In all cases, shame makes an individual feel negative about themselves because as Marisa K. Crowder and Markus Kemmelmeier (2018) examine, we perceive negative evaluation by others (real or imagined) as shameful.

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Until next time, in solidarity.

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