Dealing With Shame When You Feel Guilt

Understanding shame can be important for your health

Shame is a powerful emotion that can cause people to feel defective, unacceptable, even damaged beyond repair. But how much do you know about shame? Read on to learn about the effect of shame on self-image and self-esteem as well as the behaviors it can cause in people with borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Shame Vs. Guilt

You may sometimes confuse shame with guilt, a related but different emotion.

  • Guilt is a feeling you get when you did something wrong, or perceived you did something wrong.
  • Shame is a feeling that your whole self is wrong, and it may not be related to a specific behavior or event.

When you feel guilty about the wrong thing you did, you can take steps to make up for it and put it behind you. But feeling shame, or being convinced that you are the thing that’s wrong, offers no clear-cut way to “come back” to feeling more positive about yourself. That’s one difference between shame and guilt.

Guilt

  • Feeling remorse or responsible for something you’ve done wrong or perceived you did wrong
  • Relating to a specific action like making a mistake, committing an offense, or hurting someone (intentionally or unintentionally)

Shame

  • Feeling that you are bad, worthy of contempt, or inadequate as a person
  • Relating to our behavior or self, often in relation to other people’s opinions, not necessarily about a specific behavior or event

How Shame Happens

From the day you were born, you were learning to feel that you were okay or not okay, accepted or not accepted, in your world. Your self-esteem was shaped by your daily experiences of being praised or criticized, lovingly disciplined or punished, taken care of or neglected.

Over time, intense feelings of shame can take hold of a person’s self-image and create low self-esteem. Feelings of shame often stem from what other people think. The person may become super-sensitive to what feels like criticism, even if it isn’t, and may feel rejected by others. Inside, they feel painful self-contempt and worthlessness.

Researchers studying the role of biology in the development of shame-based low self-esteem are focusing some of their attention on serotonin, a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) in the brain. They are exploring the possibility that low levels of serotonin may contribute to submissive behavior leading to feelings of shame.1

Evidence is increasing that serious problems can occur when shame gets deeply woven into a person’s self-image and sense of self-worth.2

Shame for People With BPD

Someone who feels deep-seated shame and low self-esteem may not realize that it’s the motivation for many destructive behaviors, which can include substance abuse, eating disorders, road rage, domestic violence, and many other personal and social crises.3

People who experience traumatic events are also likely to feel shame, particularly if they blame themselves for what happened. In people with BPD, deep-seated shame may account, in part, for their higher rates of suicidal behavior and self-injury.4

Shame also affects men differently from women. It’s said that men with shame-based low self-esteem tend to “act out” through anger and violent behavior toward others, while women “act in” by turning their feelings inward and hating themselves.

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