Shame on Me, or Is It Guilt?
by Mark W. Baker, Ph.D.
“I’m a ‘by the book’ kind of guy,” Ethan said looking down at his shoes. “Our world is so out of control; it’s just crazy out there. I’ve provided for my family and tried to always do the right thing. Well, until now, I don’t know how this happened. I feel so bad. I always thought I was a good Christian man; now I’m not so sure.”
Actually, Ethan was a pretty good person. I had come to know him well since he started therapy with me. He called me for help because his wife discovered some emails going back and forth between Ethan and a woman at work. She was a colleague, and a friend, a good friend. At first, they just enjoyed talking about work. Then, over time, they started sharing feelings about other people at work, friends they had in common and then eventually feelings about their mutual marriages. This became a slippery slope into even more personal conversations. Now they were saying things to each other that were far too intimate for just friends. Without realizing it, Ethan fell into an emotional affair. It wasn’t something he was looking for. It just happened.
The most common place for affairs to start is at work. Most people don’t see it coming because they think they are just talking to a friend. But if you are not careful, “just friends” can change into something more than that very easily.1 And now that Ethan’s wife was involved, he was struggling to figure out just how he felt about everything—especially himself.
Ethan was confused. Was he feeling guilt for what he had done, or was he ashamed of himself? Often we use the terms interchangeably, so that makes it even more confusing. All he knew is that he felt bad and he had come to me to help him sort that out.
Is It Guilt, or Shame?
There is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is the bad feeling you have for doing something you should not have done. Shame is the bad feeling of regret for being an inadequate person. Guilt is about what you did; shame is about who you are. Both are bad feelings, but it’s important to know the difference.2
The Bible has a lot to say about guilt. Mostly, it feels bad, but it exists to help us. Paul talks about a “godly sorrow” that leads people to repentance and produces good things in their lives (2 Corinthians 7:11). This is a useful tool for anyone with a conscience. This is healthy guilt, because it is motivated by love. Healthy guilt motivates you to do the right thing to restore damaged relationships.
But I am sure you are aware that not all guilt is productive. Some guilt is neurotic guilt, because it is not motivated by love. It is rooted in fear. Neurotic guilt is not about making amends, or figuring out the loving thing to do to make things right in your relationships. Neurotic guilt is about self-preservation, and the fear of getting caught. Sure, you feel bad because of something you did, but you are not really motivated by your love of God or others to make things right with them. Neurotic guilt is better than not having a conscience at all, but it’s not really about making things right with others. It’s about saving your own skin.
Because we were designed by God to feel guilt, we all should have the capacity for it. It’s just that sometimes we are not really clear about its underlying motivation. Do you feel bad because you have hurt someone and want to bring it out into the open for healing, even if you have to risk looking foolish? Or, do you feel bad about something and you hope no one will ever bring it up again? If the fear of getting caught wins out, then you are suffering from neurotic guilt, and it is likely to be with you for a long time; because it is a form of self-punishment that substitutes for restored relationships and keeps people stuck.
Shame feels bad, too. But it is different from guilt. Shame is the painful feeling of disconnection from others that comes from feeling defective. You may think you feel bad because of things you have done, but the truth is shame is a bad feeling that you have about yourself, and you had that feeling long before you committed any of the things you think caused it. If fact, your shame is probably the reason you did the things you did wrong in the first place. I say “you” here because we all feel shame, at least to some degree.
So what was going on with Ethan? Did he feel guilt, or was it shame? Well, mostly it was guilt. Ethan had a problem with bad boundaries. I think this is a major culprit when it comes to affairs at work. It is true that his hidden feelings of shame did cause him to need the attention of an attractive woman at work. But the biggest source of Ethan’s pain was that he hurt the woman he loved more than anyone in the world, and he felt terrible about that, and not just because he got caught. I believe Ethan is going to do what it takes to regain the trust he lost with his wife. I know this because his healthy guilt is directing him to do it.
1A good book to read on this subject is Not Just Friends by Shirley Glass (2003), New York: Free Press.
2The first psychologist to make this distinction between guilt and shame was H.B. Lewis (1971) Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. New York, N.Y.: International University Press.
This article is adapted from the first chapter of Mark Baker’s new book, Overcoming Shame: Let Go of Others’ Expectations and Embrace God’s Acceptance (2018) Harvest House.
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