woman sitting hunched over on a jetty by water

You should be ashamed!

It’s common to hear outraged people say or type these words. The underlying postulate of the expression is as follows: someone who has wronged someone else should feel bad about him- or herself, and this bad self-feeling will spur them into acting more altruistically next time.

According to Brené Brown, research shows that this postulate is false. Feeling ashamed does not help a person become more altruistic. It’s quite possible, she explains, that guilty feelings will lead to positive behavioral changes—but shame is of no use in that regard. In her recent book Dare to Lead, Brown very simply explains the difference between guilt and shame:

Guilt = I did something bad.
Shame = I am bad.

In other words, feeling guilt is making a negative judgment about certain actions you have taken in the past, while feeling shame is making a negative judgment about yourself as a person. The difference is huge. In the first instance, you have the freedom to make better choices in the future, because the judgment is strictly about the past. In the second instance, you are not likely to start behaving differently, since you believe you are permanently, irredeemably bad.

Things get even more interesting when Brown shares the outcomes that research has found to be associated with each of these emotions:

“While shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying, guilt is negatively correlated with these outcomes.”

So in order for someone’s behavior to change—whether that’s someone else or yourself—the answer is to feel guilt (if applicable), never shame. I have been testing this on myself since I first read about it in Brown’s 2012 book Daring Greatly. Previous to that time, I had been walking around the planet feeling shameful for being alive. Literally! It’s astonishing what can happen when, anytime you notice yourself feeling ashamed, you ask yourself whether you should actually be feeling guilt—or whether you’re just beating down on yourself unnecessarily. Either way, I find that it’s helpful to bat away that wretched shameful feeling, give yourself a pat on the back for trying (even if you just failed!), and think about what you might do better next time.

In this passage, Brown takes things a step further and points out that people in power who seem shameless are likely actually shameful—and that therein lies the problem:

“In our political chaos, people throw around the word shameless when they see someone make a self-serving or unethical decision, . . . attributing unconscionable behavior to a lack of shame. This is wrong and dangerous. Shame isn’t the cure, it’s the cause. Don’t let what looks like a bloated ego and narcissism fool you into thinking there’s a lack of shame. Shame and fear are almost always driving that unethical behavior.”

Let’s watch out for the use of the word shame, both on the Internet and in the streets. And let’s watch out for the feeling of shame in our hearts. These things are not needed here on earth. Sometimes we make mistakes. But we are not bad people. We’re just trying to find our way.

Conjure up the feeling of guilt: what does it feel like? Conjure up the feeling of shame: what does it feel like? Can you inwardly sense the difference?

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