Shame and Guilt – You HAVE to understand the difference

Shame and Guilt – no childhood nor parenthood are safe from these two emotions. As much as we would like to have a smooth sail on the Ocean of Parenting, we are bound to encounter bad weather, emotional whirlpool, and major storms. And you know what tends to follow behind those storms? That's right. Shame and Guilt.

Guilt and shame are close relatives, looking really similar to each other. However, they are not the same. We, as parents, must have a good understanding of what shame and guilt look like because they the effect they have on our kids is crucially different. In this post, I'll explain what guilt and shame are, how they're different, and why you want to have more of one and less of the other. Wondering which is which? Read on.

Let's start with a story.

Five Minutes of Horror

I should probably consider myself lucky for the fact that in the five years of parenting none of my kids got lost.

Well, until today.

My boy turned five last month, and one of his birthday presents was a Micro Scooter that his grandparents got for him per his request.

Today, we all woke up very early so we decided to be spontaneous and went to one of his favorite places where he could practice raising his scooter for the first time.

So we went, me and my wife, and the two kiddos. And he had a blast, he got the hang of riding pretty well and pretty fast. After some riding, he went climbing on ropes and exhausted himself really well and then we just hung around and rested on some bean bag chairs that were spread around the playground.

What we like about about that place is that there's a closed market next to the playground where you can buy something to eat and groceries to take home. So, when we were done and ready to go home, we went inside to buy some stuff. We had time before lunch at my in-laws so we bought some onigiri to snack on when we get home. My wife went into the shop while I waited outside with the kids when he decided to follow her into the shop.

Half a minute later, when she was paying for the food, I asked her where the boy was and then we realized he’s not in the shop.

We were cool at first, sure that he’s behind one of the aisles. But no. He wasn’t around and didn’t respond when we called his name. We started to look around the shop and didn’t find him. That was when my heart started plummeting all the way into my underwear.

People around us started looking for him too. One of them asked me what does he look like and all I could think of was “He looks like me, same hair, only five years old”. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember what he wore. Why didn’t I remember what he wore??

I’m not sure how long it took until he was found. Probably five minutes at the top but those were probably some of the more horrifying five minutes we ever experienced. My imagination ran wild. I imagined him running outside, looking for us, terrified and not sure where to go and how to explain himself to the bystanders. Even worse, I imagined him getting grabbed by some evil man.

Relief started to come when I saw him suddenly in the hands of the man who asked me how did he look. My son was crying and the man explained that he was hiding inside one of the stores. We couldn’t really understand what happened, but he may have wandered off to hide like in a hide and seek game what he didn't send the memo about.

“It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found”, D. W. Winnicott

After the relief came the tears. And the guilt. How could we have let him get out of our sights? How could we be so neglectful? What would our parents say?

As we went to the car and drove away, he fell asleep and continued sleeping after we arrived home. My wife and I cooled down, and when he woke up we sat down to eat the onigiri and started talking with him about what happened.

Unsurprisingly, he was reluctant to talk. His head was down. I could see the guilt in his eyes. I bet he had the same thought I expressed just two paragraphs before – what will my parents say?

 

Shame and Guilt

Seems like guilt swept through all of us on that afternoon (lucky for our daughter, being less than a year old, she had no idea what was going on).

Guilt is an important emotion. It’s one of those that we hate the feeling. But it’s a very important emotion for our development. One could argue that without guilt, we couldn’t raise our kids to be considerate, caring adults.

However, we must notice the difference between shame and guilt. Those two emotions belong on the negative side of the emotional map, where you’ll find them on judgmental-town. And it’s really confusing because they tend to feel the same.

Take a minute and recall a time when you felt guilty and a time when you felt shame. Try and remember what you were feeling in your body. Was it sweat? Heat in your face? Gnawing feeling in your stomach and the feeling that you just need to disappear?

As I've said at the beginning of the post, while shame and guilt may feel the same, they are very different emotions because they affect us differently. And here is the important difference between shame and guilt:

While guilt is a negative judgment of the behavior, shame is a negative judgment of the self.

 

shame and guilt

What does the difference between shame and guilt mean for parents?

Let's consider the thought “I should have paid more careful attention to my son’s whereabouts and it’s wrong that I didn’t have a hand on him at all times” – that’s guilt. It’s all about the behavior.

Now consider this thought: “I should have been more careful and strict. I’m a bad father for letting him disappear like that”. That’s shame.

We can make the same differentiation for what we, as parents, could have said to our son after the fact:

“It was wrong of you to wander off like that without telling us” or “How could you scare us like that?”. Which sentence can bring forth guilt and which one brings shame?  I think you get it.

A lot of times, as parents, we say things that shame our kids, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not. Shame is actually one of the biggest educational tools in history. It could be really useful when we want to alter or control a child’s behavior.

However, shame is a toxic emotion that you don’t really want to use. Because shame results from judgment on our sense-of-self (as opposed to our behavior), it drills down into our core, our being, and their things starts to rust.

One shame-inducing episode, even two, will probably won’t do any long-lasting harm. But over time, with multiple episodes of shame, the child will start to internalize those shaming voices. He or she will start to identify with the shame and truly believe that they are wrong just for being themselves, for thinking their thought or feeling their emotions. Their sense of self-worth and secure base will start to erode. 

As a therapist, when I work with adults, I see it over and over again. People who are unable, or find it really hard, to be in touch with their core feelings because of shameful messages they received as children. They need to work in therapy in order to feel safe again with those thoughts and feelings. To feel safe again with themselves.

Shame tends to make kids (and adults, let’s face it) disengage, shy away from other people. Guilt tends to make them try and make things better. One study gave kids a doll to play with, that was designed to break easily. The kids who were more prone to feel shame tended to avoid the researchers when the doll broke and to deny they had anything to do with it, while the guilt-prone kids tended to reach out to the researchers and tried to fix the doll.

That’s why it is so important that you, as a parent, will know the difference between guilt and shame. Because we have to face it – even with all our best intentions for connected, integrative, positive, attachment-based parenting – sometimes we have to teach our children by making them feel a little bad about something they did. But that’s the point: When it comes to unwanted behavior, we must always, always, address what they did, not who they are.

 

Featured Image by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Middle Image by Greyerbaby on Pixabay.

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