We often think about these three feelings the same way, however, they are really quite different emotional states to which all humans are subjected. I think we can all agree that we would prefer to avoid all three! They are generally considered to be negative feelings and for some, they can linger for a long time or even a lifetime.
Embarrassment is an uncomfortable feeling you experience when you fear that something about you will be / or has been seen by others. It occurs when we fear that others see something other than the image of ourselves that we want them to see and believe. Embarrassment occurs when you trip and fall in front of others, you have something stuck in your teeth, the zipper on your pants is open, you forget what you are going to say when speaking to a group of people or you feel uncomfortable about your body or a pimple on your your face.
Per the examples above, embarrassing situations can be related to something about your physical body, something you perceive as a character flaw or deficit, work that you don’t feel is up to your expected standards, an action you made / or did not make, your relationships, etc. Feeling embarrassed can be very uncomfortable and cause you to replay the embarrassing situation over and over in your mind. The good thing with embarrassment is that, often, you can laugh off these situations either in the moment or over time. The pain does not root deeply and result in you thinking you are a “bad” person at your core.
Guilt is a feeling you experience and is tied to an action that you feel badly about. You act in a way that you are not proud of and then feel guilty about it. With guilt, you often try to make a reparation for your actions once you realize they were not in alignment with who you want to be or how you wanted to make someone else feel. You may try to repair a relationship or make amends because you are considering the needs of the other individual.
The strongest feelings of guilt are related to situations with those whom you are closest because you care the most about those individual’s feelings. If you feel guilty about yelling at your child or partner, about not making time for a family member or for speaking sharply to a co-worker who you really like, your guilt with likely be stronger than if you felt guilty about something you said or did to a stranger. Regardless of the other individual, guilt can be a motivator to fix or improve a situation. When you notice that you are feeling guilty, consider why and what you can do to repair the situation. This will reduce or eliminate your feelings of guilt.
Shame occurs when you act in a way that is in opposition of your moral standards. With shame, you feel bad about yourself as a person, and not just about your actions like you do with guilt. With shame, you have negative feelings about an action you took, and them make them negative feelings about who you are as a person. You internalize the action and tell yourself that is who you are, rather than that is something you did. Rather than reaching out to make a reparation as you might with guilt, you try to hide, cover up and and internalize your feelings.
When shame sits inside you, it can become worse over time and cause you to feel very lonely because you are trying to hide this part of yourself from others. The shame can become part of your identity and result in your feeling like you are “not worthy”, like you are a “bad person”, “a failure” or “not enough” of a person. These messages you give yourself are very powerful and very hurtful.
If you are feeling shameful, examine your thoughts that are causing the feeling. The shame is coming from the thoughts you are telling yourself, not from whatever occurred that caused these thoughts. Can you move these thoughts from shameful thoughts to guilty thoughts? This makes the thoughts about the action you did, not about you as a person.
Can you see that the shame you are experiencing is the result of an action you took, which caused you to think shameful thoughts? The action you took does not define who you are at your core. You can consider another thought that is something like, “I don’t like the way I acted and I want to figure out how to fix it because it is not who I am as a person”. The action does not define you. For more examples about how to do that, go HERE and download my free handout which will further walk you through this process.
With that said, shame in a mild form can be a guiding force to help us lead our lives in a way that is in alignment with our morals. We don’t’ want to feel shame so we work to avoid behaving in a way that may cause us to feel shameful.
Shame and guilt can go hand in hand since you can feel bad about an action you took and also feel bad about yourself as a person for doing it. As I said prior, neither of these things are bad in and of themselves because they can help you learn and stay in alignment with who you want to show up as in the world. They become problematic if you continue to internalize the actions and increase your feelings of shame. As is mentioned earlier, the way to avoid this or to reduce / eliminate your shame is to change your thoughts. For specific examples about how to do this, go HERE and download my free handout which will further walk you though this process.
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