Everyone has experienced the feelings of guilt and shame – they’re universally human senses that often lurk just below the surface in daily life. However, they are very different emotions.
Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling when we feel like we have done something wrong.
While it can be unpleasant, it can also be a healthy and productive emotion, as it is often the result of violating our ‘inner compass’ of knowing what is right and wrong. When we feel guilt, we often say something like “I did something wrong” or “I should have followed through on that”. Guilt is about our behaviour and something we do (or don’t do). In other words, it’s a part of our ‘doing’. When we feel guilt, we can often reduce or eliminate it by getting back into alignment with our inner compass. It is a temporary state and we have the conscious ability to fix it.
Shame is much more devastating and corrosive, as it is not about something we do, but about who we are.
Shame is the feeling that there is something wrong with us at the core, which leaves us unworthy of love and connection. Shame is a core wound that is created in early childhood and remains with us throughout life. It is about our very ‘being’, and gets weaved into all of our unconscious beliefs about ourselves. It can come from traumatic experiences early in life, or from messages that were given to us from parents and caregivers.
When we are very young, we don’t have the critical thinking or conscious ability to understand or filter the messages we receive – we believe everything we’re told when we are very young. A comment made in anger or ignorance by a parent or caregiver such as “stop being so sensitive”, “don’t be so stupid” or “you’re too much” can be devastating to a young child, even if it well-intentioned.
That feeling and message of shame embeds in our consciousness, and then becomes the basis of developing our ‘false self’ as we develop and grow. Deep down — often below our ability to even recognize it — we believe that the shame message is true. We then unknowingly seek out and attract people and situations that reinforce the message, because we believe it’s who we are.
For example, if a small child develops a shame message that they are stupid, that core message will trigger every time someone accidentally presses that hidden button. If the child grows up to be an entrepreneur with the hidden belief of “I am stupid”, they will feel that awful feeling every time they put themselves out there and someone rejects their message or idea.
This often leads entrepreneurs to becoming workaholics, never satisfied with what they’ve done or what they achieved — because deep down, there is a sense they are stupid .. and there is an endless need to try and overcome that internal belief with external validation. Unfortunately, no amount of external success or achievement will ever soothe that core feeling.
Everyone (and I mean everyone) has a core shame message that they carry out of childhood.
Some of the most common ones are:
- I am broken (or defective or damaged)
- I am unworthy
- I am unloveable
- I am ugly
- I am stupid
- I am alone
- I am worthless
- I am dangerous
- I am unwanted
Doing the work to get in touch with your shame message is one of the most potent and transformational things you can do for yourself. Once you can recognize the false message you developed as a small child, you can begin the work to dismantle that message and pattern.