Tag Archives: shame v. guilt

Thoughts On Guilt v. Shame

I’ve heard it said that guilt is a useless emotion. I disagree.

If I stub my toe, it hurts. That brings my attention to possible damage to my body. If it’s more than superficial damage the pain hangs around, reminding me to take it easy and allow it to heal. The same is true of a headache, which could be a symptom of tension, high blood pressure, or even a brain tumor. A headache that’s severe or doesn’t go away in a relatively short time is cause for further investigation. And so forth.

I think of guilt as another form of pain. Guilt reminds me that I’ve “stubbed my toe” spiritually. By some commission or omission I have failed to live up to an obligation, duty, or my own moral and ethical standards. Just as physical pain is a warning to look to the health of my body, so is guilt a warning about my behavior: something needs to be fixed, a duty discharged, amends made. Like pain, it remains until I do something to allow it to heal.

Shame, on the other hand,  is without doubt undesirable. It’s a spiritual bruise, perhaps a scar. Rather than influencing us to right a wrong, shame tells us that we are a wrong. It causes us to behave unskillfully, as well. In a very real sense, we can say that guilt keeps us honest; shame keeps us dishonest, with ourselves and others. In attempting to make ourselves feel better, we may fail to react to the pain of guilt in useful ways. If we stuff the guilt, instead of fixing the problem, it is likely to turn into more shame.

I think it’s useful for our spiritual development and repair to keep this distinction firmly in mind. People like us addicts, who come from a place of shame, are likely to find it hard to react usefully to guilt, because we were taught to believe that guilt makes us less worthy. The reality is exactly the opposite. As we learn to admit our mistakes, wrongs, and other transgressions, we move farther from shame, collecting reasons to feel better about ourselves. In time, lesson builds on lesson, and we begin to think of ourselves as worthy, rather than “wrong.”

That’s far easier said than done, but it’s a path necessary to the self-esteem that we addicts crave.


Shame v. Guilt

By Bill

One of our difficulties in recovery is that we are confused about who we are.  Our ideas of self have been warped by our experiences inside and outside of our addictions, and by the things that we have done to sustain the “legend in our own minds” that we have built up over the years.

Many of these things involved our being used, abused or neglected by others in our lives.  Some came from our using other people in various ways, most of them not to the other person’s benefit.  Our use of and objectification by others, along with our having used people ourselves — eventually turns into remorse for the things we’ve done.  It becomes difficult to distinguish between guilt, the knowledge that we have done something bad, and shame, the belief that we ourselves are bad.

That feeling, that we must be bad people — that something is wrong with us morally — drives a major part of our addiction.  Until we are able to unearth and expose those feelings to the light of day, looking at them with adult perspective instead of a child’s fears, we are not able fully to experience the freedom of recovery.

Steps 4 and 5, along with professional help if needed, are the tools that we use to excavate and deal with our secrets and shame.  Once we dig them out and take a look, we don’t then find it necessary to bury them again.  A secret shared is no longer a secret.  Shame, once exposed to the light of reality, changes into guilt — sometimes ours, but often that of others.  That transformation is the key to our understanding of the next steps we must take in order to move further down the path toward recovery.