I recently watched an episode of “Super Soul Sunday” on OWN, in which Oprah Winfrey interviewed Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Brown has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.
Until I listened to Brown talk about guilt and shame, I understood their difference but was never quite able to completely put that understanding into words.
Guilt is a feeling that we get that recognizes that we have made an error in judgement or have done something we wish we would not have done. To be guilty is okay as long as we recognize the wrong path that we took and then move on from the negative feelings. Shame enters the picture when we confuse who we are with what we do or what we have done (and have judged as wrong). To say something “stupid” is possible for everyone but to believe yourself a stupid person is what draws the line between guilt and shame.
A person who feels some guilt may feel that guilt when they say something “stupid” and it hurts someone’s feelings. Feeling guilty for what you have done and even apologizing are perfectly good and healthy approaches. Shame will tell a person that saying something “stupid” means that they are stupid. Guilt is temporary; like a marker for guiding our behavior. Shame is more long term and when a person lives in shame, they believe every bad thing they tell themselves (inner negative dialogue) and every bad thing that people say about them.
A great example that Brown gave is that her children have even learned the difference between what they do and who they are. Her daughter made a mess in an art class and the teacher casually told her that she was “so messy” and she immediately responded by saying, “I have made a mess but I am not messy”. This is an excellent example of the recognition of who we are verses what we do.
I think we should all work towards removing shame from our lives. We can make mistakes in life, and we will, but the mistakes that we make do not define us.
Nomalanga helps Black women in their lives and careers. She is a Social Commentator, an Editor at Your Black World , Assistant Professor of Professional Studies and the reigning Mrs Botswana. Visit Nomalanga’s Facebook page or Follow her on Twitter