Leaders Know the Difference Between Shame and Guilt

We often use the words shame and guilt interchangeably, but this causes problems. If we avoid tough conversations in order to save someone from shame, what we actually might be doing is avoiding important information that simply makes someone feel a little guilt. In a nutshell:

Guilt – “I did something bad.”

Shame – “I am bad.”

Guilt is the knowledge that when I’ve done something bad, I can do better next time. Shame is the understanding that if I am bad, there’s no hope for me.

Shame has dangerous effects because it’s not about the behavior; it’s about the entirety of the person. Avoiding tough conversations because of the fear of shame puts people back into their armor and away from productive conflict.

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

Brown, Brene. (2007). I Thought it Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough.” New York, NY. Avery.

Guilt, on the other hand, is a compass for moral behavior. It’s okay to feel this if you’ve done something wrong. Guilt is about behavior, and behavior can be changed for next time. Changing our behaviors is about personal growth, which is what leaders ultimately want for themselves and others.

“Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive.”

Brown, Brene. (2018). Dare to Lead. New York, NY. Random House.

Shame holds us back while guilt moves us forward.

In fact, the fear of shame can lead people into behaviors resembling narcissism. Brené defines narcissism as “the shame-based fear of being ordinary.” But more than that, shame is highly correlated to addictions, depression, bullying, and mental illness. Guilt is inversely correlated to those. Guilt is simply the disconnection between actions and values. And guilt can even provoke empathy, which is the antidote to shame.

So, use care in the words you use with others. Be sure to emphasize behavior, not personal character. And then, be mindful of how you internalize what was said. Being held accountable for behavior is different than being shamed into hopelessness.

Then, do what it takes to promote shame resilience.

“Shame resilience is the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it…”

Brown, Brene. (2018). Dare to Lead. New York, NY. Random House.

It’s important to understand that if we share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. Self-compassion is also critically important, because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy with others.

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

This is the sixth post in a short series featuring the work of Brene Brown. Specifically, her book Dare to Lead. Read the introduction post to this series here.
Post #1: Leaders Know the Myths of Vulnerability
Post #2: Leaders Understand the Pitfalls of Perfectionism and Fear of Failure
Post #3: Leaders, Beware of Numbing Behaviors
Post #4: Leaders are Clear and Kind
Post #5: Leaders Avoid Rewarding the Exhaustion of Productivity

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