Shame Guilt & Trauma

Is It Shame or Guilt?

Is It Shame or Guilt?

“I feel so guilty. I always stay with my mother when I visit her. The last time, I decided to stay at a hotel. She fell down during the night and ended up in the hospital.”

“My father drives me crazy, but when I talk back to him, I feel guilty.”

But is “guilt” really what these two people in distress feel?

In almost every workshop that I teach on shame, someone asks me to explain the difference between shame and guilt. There is a common wisdom here, which I basically agree with: Guilt is “I did something bad or wrong,” shame is “I am something bad or wrong.” Guilt is about actions, shame is about your very being. While useful in many ways, there is a basic problem with this distinction. Many people use the word “guilt” when they are really talking about shame.

Shame and Trauma

Shame and Trauma

I developed many of the techniques I use in working with shame as a Somatic and Emotional Mindfulness Trainer from my trauma training with Peter Levine. Shame, like trauma, puts the body in a freeze state and lowers the ability to think and act clearly. Shame feels like a fog or cover, something that is external, that makes it hard to function. I think of shame as developmental trauma. Usually, it is not a single shock to the system, like an accident or a hospitalization, but a series of more subtle shocks, a slow drip, drip, drip that disrupts normal functioning and creates feelings of isolation and powerlessness. The freeze of shame, like the freeze of trauma, has survival value in allowing a person to get through an intolerable situation.