Guilt vs Shame and the Benefits of Empathy

We have all have felt guilt and shame before, but do you know the difference between the two? Before attending a seminar on guilt, shame, and resilience, (given by Allison Marek LCSW, CDWF and inspired by Brené Brown’s research on shame, vulnerability and connection), I do not think that I would have been able to accurately describe the difference between guilt and shame. After the seminar I felt enlightened by what I had learned. Here is what I took away from it and I hope that you can take something away from it as well.

What is shame? As complicated as it may seem, it is the most basic human affect, also known as the fear of disconnection. Shame is a painful feeling often experienced when one feels as though they are flawed and not worthy of another’s love. The most painful aspect about shame is that no one wants to talk about it, or address it, and the more it is disregarded, the more it sticks around. What is one thing that can combat shame? EMPATHY!

Empathy can be a difficult concept to grasp. Empathy can sometimes be confused with sympathy, however, the two concepts are very different. Sympathy is saying, “I am sorry, let me know if you need anything.” There is a certain distance left between the two people. On the other hand, empathy is saying, “I hear you, I am going to sit through this with you.” Empathy is sharing a connection with another person and genuinely understanding the feelings of another person.

Now, back to understanding the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is discomfort felt after doing something wrong or failing to do something. As Brené Brown states, “it’s holding something we’ve done, or failed to do, up against our values.” When we look at guilt this way, the discomfort that we feel can be beneficial and adaptive. While shame tears us down, guilt serves as an uncomfortable feeling that can propel us to change.

I’d like to leave you with a powerful short by Brené Brown on empathy.

Written by: Rachel Ealy, Practicum Student Counselor

Supervised by Amy Rollo M.A., LSSP, LPC-S

Source: Courage in Counseling: Practical Applications of Shame Resilience Theory Lecture by Allison Marek, LCSW, CDWF