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Shame Versus Guilt

What is the difference between Shame and Guilt?

Excerpts taken from an article called "Shame and Its Damaging Effects" by Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R and Chaya Feuerman, LCSW-R. Printed Originally for the Jewish Press. E-Mail: 

the.guard Tuesday, 01 July 2014

Shame is an excruciating and agonizing emotion. When a person feels shame, he feels completely worthless and small, almost as if he has no right to exist. Shame is a powerful process that is hardwired into our system, and makes us humans sociable and responsive to the standards of our community.

Shame Versus Guilt

Many are confused about the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is a feeling of regret and moral failure that calls for some correction or repair. While at times guilt may indeed be pathological and therefore difficult to resolve, it compels the person in some way to change himself and repent or restore a breach. On the other hand, shame does not usually call for action. Instead, the message is, “You are completely unworthy, cannot fit in, and there is nothing you can do about it.” This is why shame is much more destructive than guilt. When a person is feeling guilty, he can conceivably change and fix it, but when he is ashamed he is utterly unfit and does not belong.

Shame and Addiction

People who engage in compulsive and addictive behaviors, whether it consists of alcohol, drugs, sex, food or gambling often get trapped in a cycle of secret shame and addiction. To begin with, many addicts have a history of trauma and/or abuse, leaving them vulnerable to intense crushing shame and negative feelings.

Many addicts use their substance of choice (drugs, alcohol, etc.) (gambling, sex, binge eating) as a temporary reprieve and distraction from this emotional pain. Unfortunately, since these behaviors are not socially acceptable, this leads to even more intense feelings of shame, alienation and social isolation. This is why the cycle of addiction thrives on secrecy and shame.

Families and Shame

Family members of addicts often feel excruciating shame as well for a variety of reasons. First, since addicts tend to engage in embarrassing and illegal behavior to feed their addictions, this can be humiliating for family members, especially in a community that values family yichus and emphasizes conformity to norms. Second, there is a sense of failure, that somehow the addict’s parents or family is to blame. Support groups such as Al-anon and CODA are essential resources to help family members break free from these agonizing bonds of guilt and shame.

The Antidote

The antidote for shame is acceptance and compassion. A person can learn to find a feeling of self-love and compassion inside one’s self, and also find healthier relationships with people who provide that as well. One important aspect of therapy is the unburdening of these shameful secrets and feelings in the presence of a compassionate non-judgmental person, and in family therapy, helping family members provide a similar emotional process. Through this, a person can begin to internalize these qualities and reduce and modify critical internal self-talk.

People in recovery from addiction who join a Twelve-Step group and take upon themselves to seriously work the Steps, will also find new ways to accept themselves, as the Twelve Steps offer avenues to correct distorted beliefs and expectations of self and others.