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Dealing with Failure - Difference between Shame and Guilt and how to overcome it.

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Recently I listened to the audio book, The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown. It's a powerful and insightful book that captures shame at it's depth. So shame is the way you feel negatively about yourself. The difference between Shame and guilt could be that shame says, "I am bad" while guilt says, "I did something bad'. So shame focuses on the person while guilt focuses on the behaviour. When the behaviour is in the spotlight, steps can be taken to improve it. But when the person is in the spotlight, behavioural changes are impossible to imbibe as the person is feeling bad about themselves not the behaviour. To read about overcoming guilt, read my blog here.

It is important to know this crucial difference as beneath any sort of trauma, violence, addiction lies shame. And when we become aware of it we can take steps to overcome it.

Brene describes 3 things to grow shame; secrecy, silence and judgement. So when dealing Shame; hiding and judging it even further aggravates the feeling. She also talks about 2 things that can prevent shame from growing which is empathy and non judgement. So whenever we are dealing with anyone who is dealing with shame, ourselves included,empathising with them and not judging them for their experience, can help them overcome it.

Empathy is changing perspective to another's and non judgement is not judging the person for who they are or what they did. She says that, we tend to judge people in areas where we feel most susceptible to shame. For example, if you feel shameful about being overweight, you might tend to judge people who are also overweight.

If you feel shameful for failing an exam, you might judge others who have also experienced the same. For this, empathising with their experience can help them lessen their pain. Empathy is "I am with you' while Sympathy is "I am sorry for you". This is a crucial difference because people who have shame need empathy and not sympathy.

People who are dealing with shame can overcome it with Vulnerability. This is the whole context of the book. How The Power of Vulnerability can be leveraged for dealing with shame which in turn can help lessen trauma, addiction and violence in society.

Vulnerability has 3 Components-

  1. Uncertainty - you don't know what would be the outcome when you are being vulnerable with anyone

  2. Risk - it has risk associated with it

  3. Exposure - It requires you to emotionally expose yourself which otherwise you would have kept to yourself.

According to Brene, one can reduce the feelings of shame when they are being vulnerable with someone who can hold the space for them to be vulnerable, empathise and not judge them for it.

What prevents us from being vulnerable?

Brene calls it the Vulnerability Armoury. This armoury acts as a shield which prevents anyone from being vulnerable. Following are the armours one uses-

1. Forboding Joy- When we loose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes forboding. We are afraid to feel joy for the fear of it being fleeting in nature. We have fear of losing it before we even have it. In order to prevent ourselves to experience pain that can happen in future, we numb ourselves to experience Joy in the present moment. For this, Brene suggests to practice Gratitude especially for the ordinary moments. In her research, when she interviewed people with major losses like loss of loved ones, or people grappling with major illnesses, the message they wanna share with everyone after experiencing their loss, is to value ordinary moments and being grateful for that because when you lose what you had, you realise those ordinary moments added up to make life extraordinary.

2. Perfectionism- Perfectionism is the second armour we use from vulnerability. Where there is perfectionism there is shame. In order to shield ourselves from shame, criticism & judgement we try to be perfect. And when despite being quite there, the perfectionism thing doesn't work, instead of it breaking our illusion, we try to be more perfect. Thus embracing our imperfections can help us to become more Vulnerable.

3. Numbing - Numbing is the third shield we use to avoid pain, to escape from the present moment, it can be beyond the traditional addictions, like drugs, alcohol, money, sex, shopping, video games, social media etc. Brene talks about the difference between numbing and comfort.

Numbing gives no pleasure, when it's done you feel guilty & you don't feel replenished.

Comfort on the other hand can be taking a break for pleasure, you feel replenished after that and you don't feel guilty.

Through these armouries, one tries to prevent being vulnerable which further increases the feeling of shame. To lessen shame, one needs to be vulnerable with people who they can trust to open up to. People who can empathise with them without judging them. If we are those people, we should ensure we provide a safe space for them to open up with empathy and non judgement. With this, we can contribute to making a society without violence, trauma and addictions. This is the power of vulnerability.

If we are the ones experiencing shame, then we need to leverage this power to free ourselves from the pain of shame.

Recommended Reading

Buy the Book

The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown

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