Since writing my last blog post about shame, I’ve had a lot of interaction with different people and spent more time thinking about this topic. I realized my last post needs more explanation as to the different between feeling shame and being ashamed.
Feeling Shame vs. Being Ashamed
With the advent of Brene Brown’s book “The Gift of Imperfection” and her TED talk about vulnerability a lot of people are talking about shame vs. guilt. The assumption is that shame is bad and guilt is good. “Shame says ‘I am bad.’ Guilt says ‘What I did was bad.’” states Brown in her now famous TED talk. I think her statement is true but incomplete. It doesn’t describe the whole definition of shame. Shame doesn’t necessarily say “I am bad.” Sometimes shame just says “I’m not enough.” or “I wish I didn’t have to experience this.” or “I’m embarrassed.” These statements are all negative but not necessarily unhealthy.
Different Emotion, Different Understanding
To understand this better, let’s look at another negative emotion that carries less weight with it: Sadness. It is a negative feeling and no one likes to feel it, but if your life reflects loss, grief, disappointment, hurt or despair. No counselor (or at least any good counselor) is going to try and talk you out of feeling sad. It is par for the course. If your life has pain in it, the appropriate response is sadness. This is experienced as a negative feeling, but feeling it, in and of itself is healthy for the emotionally aware person. The sooner you get in touch with your sadness, the sooner you can work through it and move on to healing from it.
Feeling Shame is Healthy
The same is true of shame. Shame can be a belief about oneself and that is not healthy. But shame can also be a feeling and if your life has recently caused you to feel ashamed of what you did or how you were exposed, the healthy response is to feel those feelings and work through them–not to pretend that you don’t feel shame or embarrassment over it.
This is why in my last blog post I confidently stated that doing wrong and not feeling shame over it cannot be a good thing. For the emotionally healthy person (who allows himself to feel), feeling shame would then be an appropriate response to having done wrong and being found out. In this way, shame has a place in our lives. But only as a feeling, not as a belief about oneself or a state of being.