Shame Vs Guilt (and how knowing the difference will make for a better marriage)

This one time, I made a mistake. I said something really thoughtless and stupid to a friend and made them feel really bad about themselves.

After apologizing, what to do? How to make this better? How to fix it?

Former Celeste knew the answer and the answer was to feel really, really bad about herself for a really long time. This surely would be the only penance for my wrong-doing. The only way to lasting change. My feelings of shame must go so deep to ensure my friend will forgive me completely and to ensure that I will change.

Present-day Celeste has read three Brene Brown books and knows a little better. Present-day Celeste says to herself (in her best Oprah voice ) “Hey sweetheart. You made a mistake. You did something not in line with your values. Let’s apologize and resolve to do better.”

That’s it.

The shame gets to end with that thought. No beating myself up for days, weeks. No stuffing, ignoring or numbing my feelings in an attempt to not feel shame.

Shame vs Guilt and how knowing the difference will greatly improve your relationship. #marriage #marriageimprovement

The difference between shame and guilt is a CRUCIAL one to understand when it comes to self-confronting, which just so happens to be our theme for the month.

So far we’ve established:

1. that we absolutely need to self-confront if we want a better marriage and
2. that we absolutely need the tool of self-love while doing so and
3. how to actually self-confront and what questions to ask ourselves to have a better marriage.

Now, if we are not adequately educated on the difference between guilt and shame, our natural tendency when faced with our faults and imperfections when we self-confront will be to get on the first train straight to Shameville and reside there until we can’t handle it anymore and need to go numb our negative emotions.

I am forever grateful for the work of Brene Brown in teaching me this crucial difference.

Shame vs Guilt

(Warning, this post contains high amounts of Brene Brown idolization. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

All hail the queen.

Here’s the difference:
Shame= I am bad.
Guilt= I did something not in line with my values.

Brene Brown defines shame thusly,

“I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

Here’s what she has to say about guilt,

“I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.”

Guilt= helpful, necessary for improvement. Shame= unhelpful, not necessary for improvement.

Let’s run through a few scenarios to make sure we get it.

Scenario 1
Let’s say you have a goal to limit your sugar intake. After a while of doing pretty good on your goal, you have a hard day and totally binge on some (ok lots of) chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.

Do you:
a) think, “Oh no! I have no self-control. This is why I’ll NEVER lose those 10 pounds. I’m just not strong enough.” OR
b) think, “Well, that didn’t feel great. Noted. I better learn from this experience and do better tomorrow.”

Scenario 2
Let’s say you had a rough day at work. You come home and the kids are endlessly needy and being crazy when all you want to do is relax. Your wife asks if you wouldn’t mind helping with dinner and you just blow up on her. You see you hurt her feelings as she starts to retreat into herself and doesn’t talk or make eye contact with you for the rest of the night.

Do you:
a) think, “Well shoot, this doesn’t feel right. I probably should have given myself a little time alone to process my day so I didn’t vent my frustrations on my wife. Noted. I’ll learn from this and do better tomorrow.” OR
b) think, “Ugh, what is wrong with me? I’m not cut out for this marriage stuff. I’m a mess. I can’t keep it together.”

I’m sure you caught onto this (you smartypants you), but in scenario 1 reaction A is shame and reaction B is guilt. In scenario 2, switch those (gotta keep you on your toes).

Why does understanding shame and guilt matter for my marriage?

I thought you’d never ask!

One of the main lessons I’ve learned from Brene Brown is that almost every negative behavior humans exhibit can in some way be traced to inner shame.

That’s a huge claim, but let’s dig in.

Just for starters, her research has shown that shame is correlated with:

– disengagement from those around us
– fear
– losing tolerance for emotion
– desire to numb emotions
– defensiveness
– extra sensitivity to get our feelings hurt more deeply and more often
– lack of courage to try new things or improve our life
– apathy
– lack of trust
– beating ourselves up
– self-loathing
– rationalizing our mistakes
– afraid of failure
– unable to face negative emotions
– can’t handle criticism
– unwilling to ask for help
– withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves
– seeking to please others
– comparing ourselves to others
– agression
– abuse
– addiction
– violence
– bullying
– suicide
– eating disorders

Guilt, on the other hand is inversely correlated with those things.

Dig to the root of almost all human hurt and shame can be found lurking in the darkness.

Dealing with our own shame issues is SO crucial in a marriage not only to combat our negative and hurtful behaviors (do you want any of the list above showing up in your marriage?), but also because our relationship with someone else can only ever be as strong as our relationship with ourself.

If your relationship with yourself is unhealthy and rooted in shame, you can’t expect to have healthy relationships with other people. Your relationship with yourself sets the tone for every other relationship you have.

If we are shackled with shame, we will never be able to be vulnerable, and the ability to be vulnerable is crucial in healthy relationships. When in shame, we are so blinded by our own fears, we can’t adequately see or empathize with those around us. We’re surrounded by mirrors instead of windows.

When in shame, people typically blame their relationship problems on communication issues or sexual incompatibility or something similar, when really, it typically goes a lot deeper than that.

So, if you really want a better marriage, a better relationship, start working on your relationship with yourself- on combating those shame issues, on building your own self-worth. Here are a few ideas to improve your relationship with yourself, but I would really recommend reading some of Brene Brown’s works- start with Daring Greatly.

And let’s just get our feet wet by watching her TED talk RIGHT NOW:

Your Marriage is a Laboratory

(Hey! That’s the name of this blog!)

Experiencing helpful guilt over harmful shame is where a “my marriage is a laboratory” mentality can really come in handy (see also “my life is a laboratory”). When you see your marriage and your life as a laboratory, failure doesn’t have to carry shame or desperation along with it.

Failure is part of the process. We can fail FORWARD, meaning every failure is an opportunity to learn and to improve.

Our current tactic isn’t working? Alright, let’s try something else. Let’s gain some new knowledge and apply it. I screwed up and everyone’s mad at me? Well, better switch up my approach, maybe get some outside help here.

Your life is a laboratory. No need to wallow in shame with a failed experiment. Notice and own up to mistakes, but then let the guilt stop there.

Just today Pinterest told me, “There are no failures, just discoveries.”

So true, Pinterest, so true.


(psssst- remember our love experiment for the month is to journal out these 15 self-confronting questions about your relationship. If you notice room for improvement, be sure to practice some healthy guilt instead of harmful shame.)

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