There’s a big difference between shame and guilt.
Guilt is the feeling you get when you did something wrong, or perceived you did something wrong, whereas shame is a feeling that your whole self is wrong – a belief that you’re a bad person, or unworthy as an individual.
Now, guilt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be a useful emotion designed to help us right a wrong – to help us realign with our values. That is, provided, we’re not feeling, or made to feel guilty for the wrong reasons. Shame, however, is rarely a useful emotion. It is rooted in low self-esteem. It is very much a product of having a fixed mindset.
I believe there are two responses – broadly speaking – from those who suffer from such a deep-seated shame. On the one hand is the individual who refuses to ever admit to being guilty – who often uses pride as a shield for fear of having to feel any shame.
On the other hand is the individual who lives with excessive guilt – who believes that no apology or action can ever bring them back to feeling good about themselves because they don’t believe they’re capable of being a better person. The problem for the latter, speaking from experience, is the tendency for shame to consume you whenever guilt arises.
A couple of weeks ago something happened that brought up a great deal of guilt for my wife and I. It happened on Father’s day (of all days) when our 5 month old – whom we had placed on the centre of our bed – rolled over several times (something we had never seen him do) right off the side and, with some force, smacked his head.
Now, I’ll interject at this point to save you any heart ache and tell you he’s completely fine. Of course we didn’t know that at the time. There were no signs of concussion, although it took him about 15 minutes to stop crying. We also found a small bump, so we decided to take him to the hospital to have him checked.
While we waited to see the doctor, my wife and I calmed down. It was evident that our boy was himself – smiling and laughing away. No signs of distress or concussion. When we finally saw the doctor he decided it was best to “err on the side of caution” and do a CT scan. He also wanted to keep him overnight for observation to be safe. We agreed despite feeling confident they wouldn’t find anything.
Unfortunately we were wrong.
What they found was a small hairline fracture on the side of his skull. He’d hit the floor much harder than we thought. The doctor told us he’d called in a neurosurgeon to get his opinion and determine the next course of action. In the mean time they put our boy on a drip and demanded we stop feeding him in case they had to take him into surgery.
To say that the next few hours were difficult is to say nothing. When we finally talked to the neurosurgeon, he explained they were no signs of bleeding. Still, he wanted to do one more scan the following day to be absolutely sure.
To cut a long story short, the second scan showed no signs of bleeding either. We followed up a couple of weeks later and the doctor was happy there were no signs of brain damage. The skull, thank god, had done its job.
The only thing we were left dealing with was own guilt at having failed to protect our boy.
Which raises the question, how should you process it? Should you refuse to acknowledge your mistakes? Tell yourself it’s ok? That these things happen? Or should you tell yourself off? Should you tell yourself that you’re a terrible parent?
This is where I believe the distinction between shame and guilt is important. Why I believe it’s important to ask yourself which of the two you’re actually feeling and why.
In years gone by, such an incident would have thrown me into a spiral. I would have seen what happened as a confirmation that I am a bad parent, instead of one who simply made a mistake. I’m pleased to report that didn’t happen. Honestly, aside from our failure in the first instance, I’m proud of how we responded. We did everything right by our son after the fact.
Still, the fact remains, we made a cardinal parenting mistake. One that we need to learn from. However part of learning any lesson is learning to forgive yourself. Shame prevents you from doing that.
It was this point I made to my wife during those difficult few hours while we waited to hear from the neurosurgeon. I told her we need to be honest with ourselves. We need to acknowledge the fact that we made a mistake. However we cannot change what happened. We must also forgive ourselves.
I told her it’s important we don’t allow our guilt to tell us we are bad parents. that we don’t let that guilt turn to shame. While it is one thing to learn from guilt – to use that to make you a better person. It is a whole other thing to let guilt tell you you’re not capable of being a better person.
It’s failing to see that, that really is a crying shame.
(Thanks for reading everyone! I’m sorry I missed you the last couple of weeks. Between this and work, I decided that a blogging break was in order. I’m glad I took one. Anyway, what are your thoughts on shame versus guilt? Do you have any stories of your own? As always, I’d love to hear from you.)
You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com