Guilt Vs. Shame

By Greg Baer M.D.

August 31, 2015

Why Guilt and Shame Seem Inseparable

People often have a hard time separating guilt and shame.

Guilt is feeling bad about some THING you have done.

Shame is feeling bad about YOU.

But guilt and shame become inseparable once shame has become established at an early age, as is the case with nearly everyone.

Let’s make this simple: Imagine that you’re a child, and one of your parents enters the room and says—after seeing something wrong—“What have you done?” which is accompanied by a sigh, an accusing tone, and a facial expression that clearly communicates deep disappointment.

What do you hear? That you’ve made a MISTAKE? NO. As a child, your parents define your whole world, so from their disapproval you hear that YOU are unacceptable. You hear that YOU are bad, that YOU should be ashamed. So much SHAME. And you would have felt this shame many, many times before.

The problem is that the shame slowly builds over many years, and almost every time the shame is established and confirmed in association with making some kind of mistake. The repetitive and direct association of mistakes with shame eventually leads you to conclude that the mistakes are the CAUSE of the shame.

Why You Feel Shame and Guilt When You Make a Mistake

But the mistakes are only the occasions when the message of shame is delivered. It’s important to realize that the mistakes themselves are not the source of the shame.

The real cause of the shame is the disappointment and irritation expressed by the parent or other care giver. But because the mistake is linked to the expression of disgust or irritation from the parent, you will FOREVER link mistakes with shame—and guilt with shame.

Now, every time you make a mistake, you feel that shame, like Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the ringing of the bell even when there was no meat presented. Shame becomes a reflex.  Mistakes become shameful.

Changing This Destructive Reflex

How can you change this destructive reflex? You have to MAKE mistakes, ADMIT them, allow someone who is loving to SEE YOU WITH the mistakes, and LOVE you. This forms a NEW ASSOCIATION. 

Mistakes become just mistakes—to disregard or learn from. This doesn’t mean you deny your mistakes, or minimize them. You simply see them as deviations from the ideal or learning experiences. You learn that they don’t make you BAD.


Recover from your negative habits and beliefs!


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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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