Shame and Guilt
Updated: Feb 28, 2019
In a world that uses the descriptions of shame and guilt interchangeably, it's easy to overlook how harmful ruminating on these painful emotions is.
We use guilt to get shit done. We are driven by shame to get shit done. They are two concepts that are very similar, often used interchangeably, yet are both fundamentally very different. Repeatedly, guilt and shame have acted as effective motivators for change, and we’ve used it in all aspects of our lives ever since adolescence.
Shame is the embodiment of worthlessness whereas guilt comes from the embarrassment or regret that results from actions. There is no positive outcome to shame. Shame is the emptiness and darkness that stems from loneliness and isolation, and shatters all senses of self worth and connection. Shame is what drives compulsions to restrict or over-exercise after “eating too much” or isolate and hide when having bad body image.
Guilt is an emotion. Guilt may be the emotion that comes up when you “eat too much,” but it is not solely this guilt that drives you to be self destructive. It is related to actions we deem are unacceptable, and we feel guilt because we conflate these actions with our sense of self worth.
The reason why shame is so destructive is because it is driven by hopelessness and worthlessness that are the root of insecurity and pain. Nothing good can come out of acts that are driven by this malicious and desperate drive.
Growing up, shame has always been my best friend. Whenever I walked through the streets, I didn’t feel worthy enough to look other people in the eye - I always had to stare at the ground. Unless I had a full face of makeup on, I didn’t feel like I was enough in my own skin. I was embarrassed of my ethnicity, and as an Asian American who was constantly surrounded by European friends, I felt like I needed to overcompensate for the fact that I couldn’t control my genetics. I never felt smart enough - I always joked about how I was the opposite of the Asian nerd stereotype - I was the stupid Asian. I was never the favorite child. I was never the smart Asian. I was never the pretty Asian. It all came down to my belief that I was not good enough.
I have always been a perfectionist. Growing up, I always set high standards for myself and wouldn’t stop pushing myself until I achieved my goals. Whether it was getting perfect grades, having the perfect resume, having the perfect body, or living a seemingly perfect life, everything in my life needed to be perfect. It was perfectly controlled in my eyes, and if I lost control over any part of my life, my self-worth was shattered and I was immediately drowned in shame and guilt.
So much of the reason why I felt this overwhelming sense of worthlessness was out of my control, stemming from my genetics, environment, and circumstances, that I was constantly frantically searching for a sense of security and safety. Amidst all the rejection and inferiority I perceived I faced, I needed to find safety in a sense of control. Naturally, I began fixating on my appearance, and the hope of being ale to control my body and appearance through dieting and exercise drove me into a downward spiral of obsessions and compulsions.
Before I knew it, I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa and my life consisted of anxiety, depression, stress, and isolation.
There is nothing positive about shame. Shame is destructive, it is painful, it is overbearing that it causes us to shut ourselves off from the world. Not only is this problematic as it limits our ability to cultivate empathy and create authentic connections, it often compels us to habitually judge others and push others away. Shame fuels isolation and loneliness. When we are so enveloped in our shame, we are trapped in self-deprecation and deflection.
This past year, I have learned the importance of increasing my critical awareness to create change. This past year, I have recognized the ways in which my shame and guilt have overpowered my life and fueled my unhappiness. This past year, I learned how to not let my shame and guilt get the best of me, and to recognize their adaptive function in my life. These emotions are evolutionarily adaptive for our survival, and understanding this has allowed me to no longer be afraid and run from them, but to recognize them and allow them to fuel my actions.