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Let's Talk About 'Guilt'

Well-intentioned people all around you are confusing what Shame is, and what Guilt is, all the time. This one issue - unclear understanding, or complete misunderstanding - about what Shame is and is not, and what Guilt is and is not - is a major factor for why more people don’t authentically escape emotional disorders.

To be emotionally healthy and maintain good emotional health, it is absolutely essential to accurately, and intuitively know what both of these things are - Shame and Guilt - their purposes, and how each one affects us differently as human beings.

Briefly, Guilt says that what you have done or not done is a problem. By contrast, Shame says that you yourself are the problem.

Another simple way of saying it is that Shame is anytime you are feeling bad about yourself.

Shame is sneaky though, so it will often make you believe you are feeling bad about something you’ve done, when in reality you are only using that thing you’ve done to feel bad about yourself. In other words, you inappropriately use the thing you’ve done as ‘proof’ of just how worthless you are. That is an example of not feeling bad about the behavior or action, but rather, of using the behavior to feel bad about yourself.

Since Guilt’s entire purpose for existing is to make us feel bad about certain behaviors and actions (or inactions), and to move us to change those behaviors and actions, Guilt doesn’t stick around once it has fulfilled its purpose. (That purpose being to provoke a change in behavior or action).

You steal a pack of bubblegum from the Piggly Wiggly, then you feel guilty about it, so you decide you’re not doing that anymore. Twenty years pass and never again have you gone back to stealing bubblegum. Guilt served its purpose. It told you that what you were doing was wrong, you felt bad about what you did, and so you stopped doing that thing. Its purpose fulfilled (to cause a change in behavior, action, or inaction) the Guilt went away.

This is very important to take note of: A person doesn’t keep experiencing Guilt once its purpose has been fulfilled. In fact, a person doesn’t keep experiencing any emotion once its purpose is fulfilled, which is what makes Shame so interesting. People will indeed continue experiencing Shame throughout their entire lives in many cases. Why? Because Shame’s purpose is never fulfilled. It never reaches its end.

What is Shame’s purpose? To convince you that you yourself are the problem. You yourself are what is wrong.

So why does it never go away? Simple: Because you always are, have always been, and will always be you.

If after 20 years you believe you are still feeling bad about something you stopped doing a long time ago, that is not Guilt. It is instead Shame. Guilt would have gone away a long time ago. But Shame won’t go away. Why not? Again, because it gives you nothing to fix or resolve. Shame says that you yourself are the problem, and there’s no changing who you are.

You have always been you, and you will always be you. It doesn’t matter how many years have gone by - you are still you. It’s not something you can ‘stop’ being.

So when people believe they still feel “Guilty” about things they stopped doing an eternity ago, the only explanation is that they are confusing Shame as Guilt.

In other words, they may believe it is the thing they did or didn’t do that they are continuing to feel bad about, but in reality they are simply using the memory of that behavior, action, or inaction to feel bad about themselves, which is not Guilt at all. It is instead Shame.

Shame’s primary focus is not on behaviors, actions and inactions as being the problem, but rather on the person himself or herself as being the problem. In other words, because a person did or said a thing, that person is the problem.

For this reason, Shame's ‘purpose’ or message is never fulfilled or satisfied, because if a person herself is the problem, she is always going to be herself, therefore the problem is always going to be ongoing and existent as long as she exists.

This is the only reason a person still feels bad after 20 years for having stolen a pack of bubblegum, even though he or she isn’t still stealing packs of bubblegum from Piggly Wigglies. What he or she has always been experiencing is in fact Shame, not Guilt. He or she just doesn’t understand the important difference between the two things.

People who are living in Shame have a hard time making the distinction between people themselves, and things people do. They equate both things as being exactly the same in nature, for all intents and purposes, when the two things are not at all the same in nature.

(It’s like viewing rain as being the same, for all intents and purposes, as an ocean. Well, try standing out in the middle of both for an hour and let’s see just how exactly the same they are.)

According to the disordered person’s perspective, there is no relevant distinction between what people have done from what they inherently are, have always inherently been, and what they will always inherently be.

In their minds, they fail to distinguish other people from their regretful actions or inactions. This is because they themselves live in Shame and view their own selves that way. They are their mistakes, rather than people who have made mistakes.

Now do you begin to see why so many disordered people living with this erroneous perspective never authentically recover? If you live with the perspective that your problem is rooted in an unfixable reality, what is there to do?

Remember that the purpose of Shame - that is to say, the message it is trying to communicate - is that a thing is devoid of value, that it doesn’t belong in life, that it is inherently a problem.

Things people say or do can be worthless, but people themselves cannot be.

So it’s appropriate to tell somebody they did a shameful thing, but it is not appropriate to tell somebody they should be ashamed of themselves.

It is appropriate for we as individuals to view certain things we might say or do as being shameful, but it is not appropriate to view we ourselves as shameful.

By contrast, Guilt identifies behaviors, actions or inactions, as being the problem, without defining anything permanent (or inherent) about the person himself or herself. The message in Guilt is not that a person is the problem, but rather that something a person has done or not done is the problem. This is so healthy and positive! Why? Because it gives that person a very reasonable and easy solution: Simply choosing to do things differently moving forward!


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