And improve your emotional literacy.
Shame is toxic. Again and again, researches demonstrate the link between shame and addiction, depression, eating disorders, bullying, and suicide. And even though we know about the harmful effects of shame, it continues to exist in our classroom, workplaces, and homes.
Chances are high you’re among thė 85% of people who have experienced a shaming incidence at school that was so devastating it forever changed how you perceived yourself.
During the past decades, Brené Brown dug into the shame trauma from thousands of people. She was able to identify a pattern all shame-resilient people have in common.
Brené demonstrates how all of us can better cope with shame. And the solution is easier than you think: expanding your emotional vocabulary.
Once you know the difference between the following four concepts — shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment — you’ll be able to see and label your emotions as they arise. You’ll become resilient towards your feelings of shame.
Shame Is About Yourself
When we feel shame, we think we’re unworthy of connection. We might have done or not done something that makes us a worse human.
Brené defines shame as the painful feeling of believing we are flawed and, therefore, unworthy of love and belonging.
Here are common things we say to ourselves when experiencing shame:
“There’s something inherently wrong with me.”
“I screw up things, I am a bad person.”
“I’m so stupid for not studying.”
“I’m sorry, I am a mistake.”
When we’re experiencing shame, we want to run away from anything that’s causing this feeling. Shame leaves us paralyzed and makes us think we don’t add value to the world.
This feeling of unworthiness makes shame so toxic. It fuels our deep fear of being not good enough. Experience enough of it over time, and you’ll make yourself so small you may as well not exist.
“Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.”
— Brené Brown in The Power of Vulnerability
Guilt Is About Your Choices
In contrast to shame, guilt is not self-focused. It’s about your actions, rather than your personality.
Brené defines guilt as feeling bad about something you have said or done or failed to say or do. When you feel guilty you’re holding your actions against your values and experiencing a psychological discomfort.
Here’s the self-talk we have while experiencing guilt:
“I can’t believe I didn’t study. Not studying was such a bad thing to do.”
“I’m a good person, but I made a bad choice.”
Do you spot the profound difference between shame and guilt?
While shame self-talk is self-destructive, guilt is action-focused, adaptive, and helpful.
When we see our actions don’t match our intentions, we feel uncomfortable. Yet, this psychological discomfort often motivates us. It steers us in a positive direction, without downgrading our self-worth.
“The difference between shame and guilt lies in the way we talk to ourselves. Shame focus on self, while guilt focus on behavior.”
— Brené Brown in Daring Greatly
With Humiliation, You Know You Don’t Deserve It
Humiliation is much better than shame since we don’t talk ourselves down. This feeling arises because of circumstances that have nothing to do with our actions.
Brown states the difference between humiliation and shame is that we don’t believe we deserve our humiliation.
Here’s your self-talk when you’re experiencing humiliation:
“This person doesn’t know how to handle things. I don’t deserve this.”
“This is unfair to do to me. It’s not my fault.”
A police officer recently stopped me and said I’d crossed a red light. Even though I attest to the fact the light was green, he made me pay 30€. I didn’t feel guilt or shame — I felt humiliated.
Shame and guilt can feel like humiliation, but with the latter, the “not-deserving” part helps us to not buy into the message. We won’t identify with what has happened to us.
With Embarrassment, You Know You’re Not Alone
Embarrassment is a feeling of discomfort and luckily, doesn’t last very long. When we have the courage to laugh at ourselves, moments of embarrassment can actually be fun.
What differentiates embarrassment from the other emotions is that when we do something embarrassing, we know we’re not the only ones who have done that thing.
Here’s what we think when something embarrassing is happening:
“That’s awkward, but I know I’m not the only one who has ever done that.”
“Ouch. I know this has happened to somebody else before.”
Shame makes us feel we’re all alone in this. When we do something embarrassing, it can even be hilarious shortly after the moment has passed. It goes away quickly, and it doesn’t make you question your self-worth.
The last time I felt embarrassed, I was wearing a white skirt, sitting in the library, and unexpectedly got my period. I felt awkward walking past other people with a red spot on my skirt. Yet, quickly afterward, I was able to laugh about it.
“If you own this story you get to write the ending.”
—Brené Brown in Daring Greatly
How You Can Cope With Shame
By now, you’ve figured out guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation are okay. Yes, these feelings are uncomfortable, but you can manage them.
What you want to be cautious of is the feeling of shame — the emotion which downgrades your self-worth and harms your growth mindset.
When you or your loved ones feel shame, there are two things you should do:
- Be Self-Compassionate
Treat yourself with kindness and talk to yourself like you would speak to someone you love or care about.
- Offer Empathy
Connect with the people around you, so they know they’re not alone in this struggle. Share your experiences with shame and make them feel understood.
Emotions are different for all of us. What’s shaming for me might be embarrassing for you. How you experience emotions depends on your story, your history, and your expectations.
Yet, by knowing the differences between shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment, you’ll increase your emotional intelligence.
- When you feel shame, you make the experience about yourself.
- When you experience guilt, you know it’s about your behavior.
- When you sense humiliation, you know you don’t deserve it.
- When you feel embarrassed, it passes quickly and feels funny afterward.
Let’s get away from a culture of shame and embrace the power of self-compassion and empathy.
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