Rethinking mistakes: Shame vs Guilt

You are a good kid; that choice was unacceptable

Shame and guilt. Two feelings that are easy to conflate. However, the more I learn about these two emotions, the more I realize how important it is to have a developed emotional vocabulary. It’s also an important reminder that the words we tell ourselves and the words we say aloud to our kids are powerful.

Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, talked about the difference between these two emotions on Janet Lansbury’s podcast, Unruffled. She described guilt as an important and powerful emotion. She also notes it is a social emotion and allows society to thrive and function effectively. In regards to behavior, guilt targets the behavior — this specific behavior is wrong. This thing (mess, lie, hitting, etc.) you did was unacceptable and the child can therefore choose not to repeat the behavior in the future.

Shame on the other hand implies YOU are wrong. You are a bad person and the behavior you demonstrated says something about who you are as an individual.

You are wrongThis behavior is wrong
This behavior defines you as an individualThis behavior was a mistake but does not define you
You are a bad personThis thing you did was unacceptable but you are not bad

Brene Brown describes herself as a “shame researcher” and wrote the book The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, which is a quick listen on Audible. She tells a story about her daughter’s teacher telling her she was “messy” to which her daughter responded, “I am not messy, I made a mess.”

Don’t imprison yourself

On the podcast, David shares about studies in prisons. When people who had committed a crime were released, they studied the predictors of whether the person re-offends or not. Interestingly, people filled with shame were more likely to re-offend. They had created a self fulfilling idea that “I’m a bad person no matter what I do and therefore my behavior is not in my control.” On the other end, people who feel guilt were less likely to re-offend. They were able to view their behavior as a very specific thing they did wrong and could choose not to do that specific thing again.

From my years in the classroom, I have seen over and over again kids who view themselves as destined to fail. They have gotten in trouble and have adopted the image of themselves as a trouble maker. They have failed a test and identify as a failure. What’s the point? That’s who I am.

While we don’t want to “let kids off the hook” for their mistakes, we also want to be mindful that we aren’t implying this behavior defines them. There is a significant difference between guilt and shame and it is our job to help children understand the difference.

Negative Self Talk

A concern I hear often from parents is about kids using negative self talk — I’m stupid. I can’t do this. I’m not good enough. The first place we need to look is to ourselves. Are we saying these same phrases aloud? I know I’ve caught myself many times engage in this shameful type of negative self talk. For example when I realize I haven’t followed a recipe correctly, my instinct is to talk down to myself. Jenny, you idiot. How could you forget to add the onions? You always screw something up cooking dinner! which is a perfect model of shame… Exactly what I don’t want to be modeling. That forgetting onions this one time defines me as an incompetent cook.

Whether we voice this negative self talk aloud or leave it as thoughts in our head, it’s important to recognize when we are doing it. David says our “internal narrator may be biased, confused, or even engaged in willful self-justification or deception.” She goes on to say, “While we often accept the statements bubbling up from within this river of incessant chatter as being factual, most are actually a complex mixture of evaluations and judgments, intensified by our emotions. Some of these thoughts are positive and helpful; others are negative and unhelpful. In either case, our inner voice is rarely neutral or dispassionate.”

Ways to help

When you find yourself engaged in negative thoughts, David offers two different strategies to help:

  1. Notice the thought, emotion or story for what it is. It is simply a thought, emotion or story we are telling our self. This helps create a space between ourselves and the emotion.
  2. Name two follow up emotions. For example if you are feeling stressed, try and specifically name what it is you are feeling stressed about. More specifically, I’m feeling exhausted, and lonely This increased clarity and specificity allows you to move into solution mode. Stressed is too broad to tackle but exhausted and lonely have viable solutions.

By being mindful of the words we are using, we can help ourselves, and our kids, learn the difference between shame and guilt. How powerful to know that our behavior can be a mistake but does not define who we are.

“You are such a mess”“You made a mess. Let’s clean it up.”
“I’m an idiot.”“I made a mistake. This does not define me.”
“What is wrong with you?”“Pushing your sister is unacceptable. You are a kind boy and pushing her was a mistake.”
“You are bad.”“Hitting your brother is bad and not allowed.”

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