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Shame

In light of the Yamim Noraim and the fresh start to a new year, many of us have self-reflected, done Teshuva and are hoping to grow and be better in the coming months. From a psychological standpoint, what types of feelings are conducive for growth and what emotions serve as setbacks for it?


Shame and guilt are often mistakenly conflated as the same emotion. People associate both with regret, negative feelings and pain. While all emotions serve a purpose, both shame and guilt have their time and place when they are helpful and times when it’s not helpful. When it comes to Teshuva and growth, however, there is a key difference between the shame and guilt that can serve as the fine line for what determines success versus setbacks from failures.


Shame is a feeling which is associated with a negative evaluation of the self. This is an emotion that often arises in therapy when people talk negatively about who they are. This is a complicated emotion to face because often the goal of therapy is to focus on growing and loving yourself. Because shame is so focused on a negative view of the self through your own eyes or the eyes of other people, it is an extremely painful experience that can result in maladaptive forms of behavior, decrease in empathy and increase in aggression. With shame, the problem is “ME” and this in turn decreases our effectiveness in dealing with issues and decreases our ability to problem solve and move forward.


Guilt differs from shame in that while shame is focused on the negativity of the self, guilt focuses on the negativity of our actions. Guilt thereby looks at who we are and what we do as separate entities. Negative actions, therefore, do not reflect on yourself as a person, but serve as a way to understand how you can do something differently in the future. As John Bradshaw says, “Guilt is about making a mistake. Shame is about feeling as if we are a mistake.” With guilt, the problem is “MY Actions” which in turn increases our effectiveness in dealing with issues and increases our ability to problem solve and move forward.


This distinction between shame and guilt can perhaps hold the key to ensuring that our new year’s resolutions are lasting and concrete. When we feel shame, it clouds our judgment of who we are and leads to more denial of responsibility, anger and blaming others. There is such a negative view of the self that any reparative behavior seems impossible or out of reach. Guilt, however, is the key to growth and success because we separate ourselves from our actions and understand that we can be good people who sometimes do bad things. When we have this mindset, we can own our actions and feel confident in ourselves and our ability to grow and to change.


As we enter the new year of 5784 let us all remember to focus on feeling guilty for what we do and not shame for who we are. In this way, we will accept responsibility and grow in all the ways that we set our minds to.


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