The important difference between guilt and shame

As we interact with the world and people around us, we form connections and understanding that are based on a shared language. The words we use allow us to create shared meaning with our friends, family, and loved ones. Each word has a unique flavor, and that flavor is what we use to build how we understand the world.

In Russian, part of the flavor of some words includes an implied direction. For example the verb идти means to go, having no specific direction implied. However, the verb войти means to walk into. There is one direction, and that direction is "in". There is another directional verb, выйти, which means to walk out of. Both of these verbs are built off the same base with the added prefix completely changing the direction. These differences are tiny, but crucial when accurately trying to describe what direction you're heading. 

In English, we tend not to think of our verbs as directional. Generally, we use modifiers to designate what way a word is going. For example, we would say "I walked into", or "she walked out of". There are some words, however, that have a hint of direction to them, insinuating an important and fundamental meaning to their usage. 

Guilt and shame are two such words with an important directional meaning folded in. When we talk about guilt and shame, there might not seem to be any difference between the two. Colloquially, we can say that we feel guilty for cheating on our diets or ashamed for getting a large combo at the restaurant and not experience the two sentiments as being particularly different from one another. After all, both involve a negative feeling associated with a decision or outcome, and both can greatly affect one's choices in similar situations moving forward. The directional difference between these two words, however, is key to understanding how these ideas flavor our individual experience of the world.

Guilt starts inside and moves out, and comes from not living up to things we believe to be true. It motivates us to bring our actions in line with our beliefs and understanding of the world. A fair comparison exists between guilt and a stomach ache from eating too much sugar. Both are natural responses, signals our body sends out saying, "you know, you might not want to do this again." It hurts for a reason! Your body, your inner self, is trying to reinforce an idea that you believe in, keeping you safe from the negative consequences that can come from doing things you know to be wrong. Ultimately, guilt can be a good thing, a powerful motivating force that comes from inside and encourages movement towards better places.

Shame, on the other hand, starts outside, originating from someplace else, and moves in. When shame comes in, it spreads like a sticky virus, infecting and harming everything that it comes into contact with. It can damage self-worth, wearing down resolve to improve, and leave a person feeling hollowed out and empty. Shame is a learned feeling, something handed down from the outside world and taken in. If guilt is the stomach ache after sugar, shame is the stomach ache from being punched in the gut. Shame doesn't encourage or uplift, and it certainly doesn't inspire. Rather it breeds fear of judgment by breaking down, immobilizing, and condemning the person who feels it. 

Learning to taste the difference between guilt and shame is important as we try to become better people. We may find ourselves wondering why the spice of life tends to be so bitter. In attempts to overpower the negative taste of shame, we might try to bury it under the seemingly sugary sweetness of distraction, the strong citrus of work, or the saltiness of exercise. Eventually, however, we will come to realize that shame is too powerful a taste to wash over or ignore.

What do we do with shame once we are aware it's flavoring our worldview? A good first step is recognizing it for what it is - an outside force trying to change who you are to fit an outside ideal. Once we recognize that what we are feeling is shame instead of guilt, we are in a position to change our recipe and drive its taste out of our lives. Examine the things that make you feel bad or guilty and ask yourself: do I feel bad because someone or something is encouraging me to feel bad, or because I am acting in opposition to what I believe to be true? If you feel you are being compelled to dissatisfaction, give yourself permission to really look at what makes you feel dissatisfied in the first place. Sit with the feeling and try to recognize the direction it is coming from. Understanding where your feelings are coming from can open up new ways to move forward in life, either to the better version of yourself encouraged by guilt, or away from the toxic mire shame is holding you in.