Many people who have survived abuse, especially childhood abuse, don’t realize there is a vast difference between healthy, normal guilt & toxic shame. We are taught from day one to feel shame- ashamed of who we are, what we think/feel/do/like/don’t like & more. This is absolutely deadly to one’s self-esteem. When you are ashamed of who you are, you want to hide from the world- you don’t want to expose anyone to the terrible person you believe you are. You would love to be invisible.
Guilt, however, is a very useful, healthy tool in life. Guilt doesn’t make you feel ashamed of yourself- guilt makes you feel ashamed of something you did that was wrong instead. Guilt speaks of the action, while shame speaks of who you are. For example, if you come home after a very trying day, & snap at your husband, you should feel guilt. Enough guilt for acting that way to make you say, “I’m sorry, Baby.. I’ve had an awful day. It’s not fair of me to take it out on you though.” Once your apology is accepted, you let it go.
Shame however, would make you tell yourself that you are a terrible person. You shouldn’t have acted that way- only a bad person acts like that! You may or may not apologize- shame may make you feel too embarrassed to apologize- but you will beat yourself up for being such a bad person.
Do you see the difference? Guilt says, “I did something wrong,” where shame says, “I am wrong & bad.”
Do you have a healthy sense of guilt, or do you feel shame? If you are in doubt, ask yourself how you feel after doing something that hurts another person’s feelings. (And yes, you will- we ALL do hurtful things sometimes, no matter how careful we are to avoid it). If you quickly do what you can to make amends & let it go, then you are feeling healthy guilt. If you beat yourself up for being a terrible person, you feel shame.
It can be hard to overcome shame, especially after a lifetime of experience with it, but it can be done. As you work on your healing, your self-esteem naturally improves. You also see things in a much healthier perspective- you begin to realize that you are NOT at fault for everything, as you heard you were when you were a child. You realize that things were done to you that you didn’t deserve, & nothing you could have done would have made you deserve to be abused. These things help you to feel less & less shame as time passes.