Recently, I was reading a book by Brene Brown entitled “Daring Greatly” when I came across a passage which discusses the difference between guilt and shame.
Essentially, Brown explains that guilt is the feeling that you have done something bad whereas shame is the feeling that you are bad.
30 minutes before reading this passage, I had been grappling with the fact that in my own experiences I tend to have difficulty differentiating between the feeling of shame about being abused and the guilt that I have because I feel as if that abuse was somehow my fault. Needless to say, the timing of reading this chapter of Brene Brown’s book could not have been more perfect.
Over the past few months I’ve learned that the only way to truly start to move on from a traumatic experience is to face the shame that is associated with the experience. The fact of the matter is that in most cases shame and trauma go hand in hand; they are two peas in a pod.
Up until recently I always thought that shame was a symptom of guilt. I felt as though I was ashamed because I had a reason to feel guilty. After all, why would I be ashamed if I had done nothing wrong? But in the last two weeks it has dawned on me that I am not ashamed because the abuse was my fault; I am ashamed because the abuse happened and I was powerless to stop it. I failed to protect myself. I became a victim.
For most of my life I have blamed myself for falling victim to sexual abuse. However, with the help of my wonderful therapist I have come to realize that there is no way that I could ever have predicted the intentions of my abuser. I didn’t even know what was happening at the time let alone understand that it was wrong for so many reasons. How could I blame myself for something that I didn’t understand and certainly did not want to happen?
Realizing the difference between guilt and shame has brought up a lot of emotions for me, some liberating and others suffocating. On the one hand, it is liberating to free myself of the shouldering the blame for the abuse. On the other hand, thinking about myself as a helpless victim being targeted by a predator is certainly not something that helps me sleep at night. With that being said, I think that freeing myself of blame for the abuse is helping me realize that my shame also stems from other places. Being the victim of childhood sexual abuse is a shameful thing whether we want to admit it or not. And the only way to deal with that shame and release the negativity is to bring the darkness into the forefront of our minds and shed some light on how we feel and why we feel that way.
Guilt and shame are two entirely different entities. I believe that one can exist without the other and often when we are experiencing guilt about something that isn’t our fault we are actually using the guilt as a shield to hide from the shame. Shame is such a powerful emotion to feel. It is debilitating and threatens our sense of self-worth. While this power can seem daunting, it is also very promising. After all, if you can take that brave step and tackle your shame, you can overcome the darkness and hopelessness that comes along with it.