Guilt: The painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions. I did/did not do something wrong. I shouldn’t have eaten the whole box of cookies. I should have gone to see my grandmother before she died. Guilt motivates me toward action. I will exercise more today. In the future, I will prioritize relationships in my life. Guilt is appropriate and moves us toward positive behavioral change.
Toxic Guilt: Guilt that comes from self-judgments regarding something done wrong when there is no actual wrongdoing. Such guilt is inappropriate and self-induced, often stemming from old messages we internalized from childhood. Toxic guilt is not helpful to anyone – you or someone else. It can move us along the continuum into shame.
Shame: The painful feeling about oneself as a person – I am bad. I am wrong. The central object of negative evaluation is the self, not the thing done. When shame arises, I am motivated to hide. I want to put a bag over my head and escape to the corner. Don’t look at me for I am not worthy. A dose of shame is healthy and necessary. It allows me to stay human. Without it, I am a sociopath – unable to humbly admit fault and feel empathy toward others.
Toxic Shame: Think shame multiplied. I live in a state of perpetual worthlessness. I am flawed, diminished and never measure up. Such an emotional state can ruin your life and relationships. For when I live in this dark place, I am locked in my own self-centered bubble. I cannot see beyond me to acknowledge another person. Like being stuck in quicksand, I am lost in my feelings of depravity. I am enclosed in self-reproach.
Want to know the cure for shame? Air. Yes, when we dare to talk about our feelings of worthlessness and they are met with compassion, we heal. Shame cannot survive in the light. It feeds on darkness.
So, talk. Come out, come out, wherever you are. It’s just me. Another human being. Trying to make it one day at a time, just like you. It’s life’s damnest secret – that at the deepest core, we are all the same – we are all in this together.