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Is Shame the same as Guilt?

September 14, 2013

In my last article Understanding versus Explaining, I made the statement:

Shame is never an effective teaching tool. Ever.

One of the commenters noticed that many of the parents she works with seem to confuse shame and guilt. They are worried that without using shame, their child will lack the motivation to change their negative behaviors. This is all wrong. Let me say that again. This is ALL WRONG.

There is a distinct different between guilt and shame.

Guilt is a healthy and appropriate reaction when we’ve done something that we know we shouldn’t have done. Guilt is a feeling that is directed toward a behavior.

Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW is a shame researcher (that sounds like a fun job, yeah?!) out of the University of Houston. She has defined shame as:

The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.

Whoa. Those are two pretty different ideas, don’t you think?

Guilt is the thought “I did something bad.” Shame is the belief “I AM bad.”

Shame is an implicitly held negative belief about our worth- and our kiddos who were harmed and experienced trauma have buckets of shame. They missed out on the adoring momma who held them close, gazed into their eyes, and responded to all of their cries. Instead of constantly receiving the message “You are AMAZING” or “You are precious,” children with trauma learned “There is something wrong with you” or “You are no good.”

Shaming a child sounds like:

    “What is WRONG with you?”

    “How could you be so stupid?”

    “Are you kidding me?”

    “Stop acting like a baby.”

Sometimes shame doesn’t have words, but comes disguised as tone of voice or body language.

Brown’s research on shame has come to the loud and clear conclusion that “you can NOT shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors.”

Shame is soooo painful that most of our children will do anything to avoid experiencing that feeling. So when shame starts to creep into their bodies, they have numerous coping skills, including:

  • Dissociation
  • Physical and Verbal Aggression
  • Running away
  • Hiding

Any of that sound familiar?

Unfortunately, our children have such a deep shame core that the slightest frown, raised voice, or consequence can trigger their shame. Once a child has gone to shame, no learning is taking place. It’s one of the reasons that consequences don’t work well for children of trauma.

I started writing this blog post many days ago. I’ve had a busy week, so I’ve just written a few sentences here and there. I’m finishing up this article in a hotel room in Houston after a day at the Empowered to Connect conference. What a beautiful reminder today has been about what our kids have missed and what we need to give to them. Our kids need “Yes.” Our kids need “You are precious.” Our kids need “I adore you.” And it’s HARD to do that with a big, gangly child with hairy legs that are longer than yours. But we must. We must teach them about their worth. And words just don’t cut it. We have to show them. They have to see the preciousness reflected back on our faces, even when their behavior is decidedly un-precious. And we must stop using shame as a misguided attempt to change their behavior. It’s not working.


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.

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