Neither guilt nor shame are easy feelings, and so, unsurprisingly I meet them both a lot in my consulting room. It doesn’t really matter if we use the words rightly or wrongly in everyday life but as therapists, we are attuned to the difference between the two – because our thinking about each is likely to differ. While guilt tends to refer to regretful feelings about something we may have done or said, a sense of shame runs far deeper than this – it goes to our core, and at worst can even make us feel so contemptuous of ourselves, so much so that we may not even want to exist.
Shame can be far more debilitating than guilt, and in my experience is most usually wrapped up in experiences of the past that led us to believe that we weren’t ‘good enough’ or at worst, were intrinsically ‘bad’. It is often bound up with a busy self-critic, created in response to a belief in such feelings of unworthiness. Therapy offers an unusual opportunity to identify, and eventually wriggle away from a self-critic’s grip, so that eventually a sense of shame can begin to slowly evaporate.