A therapist’s guide on differentiating between the two
One of the common phrases I hear within my sessions is, “I feel guilty.” Often this arises when people are grappling with a decision they’ve made. Guilt can be brought forward in a variety of situations -- from moving out of your family’s home to limiting the number of guests at your wedding. To an extent, feeling guilty can be helpful - it reminds us that we are human, we feel empathy for others, and we can acknowledge when we’ve made a mistake. However, guilt can become harmful when we continue to ruminate over our actions, beginning to shame ourselves or label ourselves as “bad.” When we experience guilt, the goal should be to focus on making amends and/or how to make the situation a better one.
Shame, on the other hand, is directly focused on the self. It is usually felt when one thinks of themselves as either unworthy, insignificant, or not good enough. This occurs when we do something wrong and focus on our flaws. The true distinction between the two is how we interpret events. Guilt may sound like, “I messed up, I will do better next time,” whereas shame sounds like, “I am a failure, I will amount to nothing.” Think of a situation when you may have missed a deadline at work. Feeling guilty can help us acknowledge we need to manage our time better, versus feeling ashamed contributes to thinking that we are not as competent or smart as a colleague. Guilt and shame are often taught to us as we grow up within our families. How our parents or family members modeled these emotions for us impacts how we tend to think of ourselves and how we respond to situations such as this one. When people feel either emotion, it is typically due to not being able to meet someone else’s expectations or your own set expectations. In many South Asian, immigrant cultures, obedience to our parents equates to being good and disobedience equates to bad. The individual who wants to move out of their parents’ home may feel immense guilt for wanting independence, freedom, and growth towards their ambitions. They may think it is self-centered to want these things when their parents may have sacrificed so much for them in other realms. Guilt allows us to then think how can I ensure that I am still present for my parents, while I pursue my own goals? Conversely, shame would have us believe I’m a bad person for wanting this, I’m not a good daughter or son, or I’m a disappointment to my family. When speaking to clients about this to support them in better understanding their emotions, I will often ask, “What does it mean for you to be a good daughter/son/child?” Sometimes this leads to challenging the messages we have learned over the years or even unlearning them. One concept I always like to introduce on this topic is interdependence: being able to depend on one’s parents, while still remaining independent to meet one’s own needs.
During the past two years, wedding planning for many couples has been especially challenging. Brides and grooms may feel as though there are even more decisions to navigate than usual. One of the reasons couples express guilt is when they have to downsize their wedding by reducing the number of guests. Couples want everyone to be included for their celebratory day, however with the recent COVID-19 surges and limitations at venues, some guests have had to be uninvited. Guilt may sound like: I feel bad for having to exclude people or I really didn’t want to do this, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. Shame may sound like: I am a bad friend, I am so stupid, or I am silly for wanting this wedding. The truth is, in this situation, there were initially no guides on how to plan a wedding during a pandemic and a surge, and everyone is navigating this in the best way they can. However, you may notice that when we feel ashamed, we tend to over-blame ourselves rather than acknowledging how difficult our circumstances are. If we start believing there is something wrong with us, it becomes impossible to separate the situation from who we are as a person, or think about ways to change or improve our circumstances.
We can alleviate both guilt and shame by having compassion for ourselves and understanding that “good vs. bad” thinking does not cover the spectrum of experiences we undergo each day. The next time you find yourself feeling guilt or shame, explore the following questions to help build understanding around the experience, alleviate the stress, and move forward. When mistakes are made or expectations are not met, we can reflect on:
How can I rectify the situation or how can I make amends?
When it comes to my negative self-talk, who taught me these messages?
When was I taught to be ashamed of myself?
How does my culture/community/family play a role in whether I feel guilty or ashamed?
Am I being overly critical of myself?
Have you been overwhelmed with your own feelings of shame or guilt? Has shame or guilt played a large role in your wedding planning? Reach out to us! We’re here to talk.
About the author: Farzana Rahman, LMHC is a wedding therapist with AisleTalk. AisleTalk is a therapy and coaching practice devoted to supporting brides and grooms through wedding stress. Whether it’s related to COVID19 or other factors, we are here for you! Book a free consultation call if you think our team can help you navigate this weird time.