Dealing With Painful Emotions: How To Distinguish Between Guilt, Shame, and Embarrassment


Let me start by saying that I don’t know about you, but I know about me: over the course of my life, I have had times of experiencing pretty intense amounts of all three of these emotionally painful —although perfectly human—feelings. Fortunately, I have cultivated a set of tools that help me keep all three of these feelings in check whenever they pop up—tools which I plan to mention later on here.

What I want to do first though is to offer a way to distinguish among the three, which may or may not jive with the distinction among the three you many already be making yourself. Let’s start with guilt. I prefer to define guilt as: feeling you did something bad in your own eyes. Then there’s embarrassment—defining that as: feeling you did something bad mainly in SOMEONE ELSE’S eyes. Finally, shame: feeling you are a bad PERSON at the core.

Going further on guilt, here’s two key things to consider. First, guilt is triggered by an ACTION you took—or didn’t take but feel you should have— that you judge yourself as bad/wrong for.

1) saying or doing something that hurt the feelings of someone who matters to you;
2) not following through on a promise or commitment you made to someone;
3) messing up on a task or project on the job; and 4) doing something reckless or immoral that doesn’t fit your values and conscience.

Second, I highly encourage a distinction be made between two emotional/psychological types or amounts of guilt: manageable vs. overwhelming. Not just black-and-whiting feeling guilty, i.e., you feel guilty or you don’t. Creating a gray area—MANAGEABLE guilt—can help you keep perspective that while you are feeling guilty yes, it is not an overwhelming amount.

As for embarrassment, again, the focus here is: you’re feeling you did something bad/wrong in someone else’s eyes. The key though is to recognize you are PROJECTING. That is, you are assuming you are being negatively judged for something you did bad/wrong that really reflects your OWN negative self-judgment projected onto someone else. Which means that if you weren’t. Which means that if you weren’t already feeling overwhelming guilt yourself, it wouldn’t upset you anywhere as much if you felt someone else was judging you negatively for what you did. Also keep in mind though that as with guilt, embarrassment can be made manageable, and not remain overwhelming.

The biggest problem of the three is shame. As John Bradshaw brilliantly and sensitively spelled out many years ago in his amazing book “Healing The Shame That Binds You,” feeling shame is psychologically/emotionally toxic to your SOUL. It means you feel at the core that you are a mix of unlovable, undeserving of happiness, and simply a bad person. Unlike with guilt and embarrassment, shame is never manageable–it is by nature automatically overwhelming.

Hopefully these distinctions resonate for you. Now, let’s consider what to do about these three painful feelings.

Guilt vs Shame vs Embarrassment: Part Two

Let’s consider what to do about these three painful feelings.

Let’s start with guilt. Assuming you feel your guilt is overwhelming—or at least pretty tough to manage—you have a couple of options to get your guilt down to a manageable level:

1) Mindfully reminding yourself that your inner bully/critic wants you to believe that you deserve to be PUNISHED for your self-defined transgression, above and beyond you already feeling bad about what you did. So you need to tell your bully/critic you’re not going to tolerate it adding insult to you having injured yourself via your bad/wrong action!

2) Make amends—which I also non-religiously describe as doing a “personal penance.” If say your huge guilt is over hurting someone, you start by sincerely apologizing to them—and I do mean sincerely, never half-heartedly or appeasingly!

Then let them know you want to do something to make it up to them— such as sincerely promising you will never do it again (and obviously keeping your promise!), and then making sure to offer to do something that will remind the person how important they really are to you. And feel free to repeat this amend-making apology and display of specialness a couple of more times in the weeks and months ahead. You can also choose to make amends to YOURSELF.

Suppose for example you are feeling overwhelming guilt that you have totally sloughed off taking care of your body and health by repeatedly sabotaging yourself in your efforts to lose a significant of weight. If you use the words “make amends” or “personal penance,” you go ahead and commit to becoming much more self-disciplined on the food control and exercise fronts—starting today!. Or if you did something reckless that you truly regret (such as driving after having had way too much to drink), you make yourself never drive again if you’ve been drinking.

Now, as for dealing with embarrassment: as I mentioned above: if you get your projected guilt to be more manageable, you are likely to get your embarrassment to be more manageable. Making amends and doing personal penance can cover embarrassment/management too.

But now to shame… If you are suffering—and I mean suffering—from shame, the work you need to do on yourself to make your shame more manageable involves more intensive work than guilt-management or embarrassment-management. That’s partly because shame can be an intrinsic part of the diagnosis of clinical depression, and often enough a complication of PTSD. Two things mainly are recommended. First, you need to build up your core self-worth. That means using tools to build up your self-esteem, such as making a list in one or two word adjectives of your likable personality traits and qualities, and looking at the list for a few moments every day. Then you need tools to build up your self-respect.

This involves two things:
1) making a list of anything you do or have done over the years that gives you at least some sense of accomplishment; and
2) at the end of the day before bedtime, taking a minute or two to give yourself a little credit (I.e., pat on the back) for anything you did that day that took at least some effort, met some goal you had set, took some real self-control, was an act of kindness, or was an act of courage.

But the other thing you really need to do to make your shame more manageable is to seek professional help! Therapy or counseling with the right therapist/counselor for you can help you work through the causes and triggers for your shame, help you become convinced you do not deserve one ounce of shame, help you become convinced you that you have the right to feel betrayed by anyone (especially a parent) who shamed you, and guide and support you into using tools like the ones I suggested in the previous paragraph.

So please do yourself a big favor, and if you recognize you need it, give yourself the gift of guilt management, embarrassment management, and most challengingly of all shame management. On a personal/psychological level, I cannot think of a gift you can give yourself that will be better for your overall mental health and emotional well-being than that!

How are YOU doing on the guilt or embarrassment or shame fronts?

Published by Meg Donovan

Web Design & Digital Marketing for Small Business

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