Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change. —Bene Brown
In a comment on last week’s post on self-care Jim Knight made an important distinction between guilt and shame which caused me to think more deeply about the importance of that distinction and how it can have a profound effect on both our personal and professional lives.
Sometimes people confuse what they do with who they are.
For instance, more than once I’ve heard someone say: “When I get angry I just say whatever comes to mind [other problematic behavior can be substituted here]. That’s just who I am.”
The distinction between guilt and shame is reflected in that confusion.
Guilt, as I understand it, occurs when we have done something to violate a moral code. We have done something we regard as wrong.
Shame is when we are what is wrong. We are the mistake, not our behavior.
Children are shamed, for example, when in response to a misdeed they are asked, “What’s wrong with you?”
Once shame has become well established within a child or adult’s neural networks it can be very challenging to help that person separate their behavior from who they think they are as a person.
As a result, even a request for a conversation about “improvement” or change can activate shame and make it very difficult for the person to attend to the conversation.
Once we become aware of this distinction we are more likely to notice the presence of shame within and around us.
But what can we do about it?
First, be very careful with the language you use when speaking to others and in your self talk. When we are concerned about someone’s actions, focus on observable behavior. Don’t contribute to anyone’s shame by digging deeper for their “issues,” a task far better suited for professionals.
Second, when shame has been triggered anticipate the possibility of a defensive response: “Why do you think there’s something wrong with me?”
Third, to minimize defensiveness ensure that the conversation remains focused on behavior. Because people who are accustomed to being shamed may find it very difficult to separate their behavior from who they are as a person, it may be necessary to repeatedly remind them of that distinction.
I encourage you to think deeply about how shame and guilt affect your life, both at home and at work, and how you might counter it.