There are key differences between guilt and shame, yet the words are often confused as synonymous.
Guilt is experienced when we feel we did something wrong or if we perceive ourselves as having made a poor choice.
Shameon the other hand, is a belief that we are wrong, irrespective of a specific event or our choices. Guilt is external to our sense of self. Shame is internalized and becomes enmeshed with our core identity and can lead to mental heal issues, including depression.
Whereas guilt is a momentary negative evaluation of our choices, shame is a negative evaluation of ourselves as a person. Shame originates in childhood as the result of witnessing domestic abuse, being bullied or rejected by peers in school, childhood neglect or abuse, inconsistent or unpredictable parenting, or parental mental health issues. In our adult lives, having experienced childhood shame can predispose us to narcissistic relationships where these feelings are perpetuated. For example, we may have histories of being gaslighted, invalidated, or having experienced a partner going “ghost.”
Shame can manifest differently in our adult relationships depending on many factors, including whether our experiences of childhood shame were isolated or chronic and how deeply the shame may have affected our sense of self-identity. There is a potential for many negative outcomes in our adult lives from having experienced childhood shame. Three of the most common include:
Emptiness. Feelings of childhood shame can breed chronic feelings of emptiness, loneliness, an inability to relate to others, or a feeling of having to create a false Self to mask their true identity as unworthy of acceptance. In extreme cases, chronic feelings of shame and emptiness can be a sign of borderline personality disorder and negatively affect the quality of a person’s romantic relationships.
If a person feels empty inside, this can increase the risk for sensation-seeking behaviors, including risks of drug or alcohol addiction, sex or relationship addiction, compulsive behavior (body obsessions/compulsions; eating disorders), or the use of other distractions to momentarily bandage feelings of emptiness.
Pattern of Unhealthy Relationships. We tend to gravitate to what is comfortable and familiar, even if it is unhealthy to our emotional and mental health. This often means attracting and being attracted to relationships that replay our core wounds. If we have a childhood history of experiencing deep shame, we may find ourselves experiencing feelings of denial, resentment, or contempt towards those in our lives who shamed us or continue shaming us.
Yet, we often find ourselves cycling from one narcissistic relationship to another because of our early conditioning. This pattern negatively reinforces our feelings of shame and strengthens the potential for “trauma bonds” in our romantic relationships.
Narcissistic Adaptations. Perhaps most concerning are the correlations between childhood abuse, shame, and neglect and an increased risk of narcissistic behavior in a person’s adult relationships. On one end of the spectrum, some may become unusually demanding and harsh on themselves, where perfectionism and unrealistic expectations are in play to try and push away feelings of shame.
Those who tilt on a need for perfectionism struggle to feel “good enough” unless they become overachievers, workaholics, or are constantly busy trying to compensate for their feelings of shame or worthlessness. On the other end of the spectrum, some may develop a grandiose sense of entitlement or fantasies of unlimited success, wealth, or the “perfect” relationship to overcompensate for feelings of shame or worthlessness.
A worst-case scenario is that feelings of inferiority and shame often play integral roles in developing Narcissistic Personality Disorder. While we may assume that grandiose behavior may be how a person overcompensates for feelings of unworthiness or not feeling good enough, this is not always the case. Some with vulnerable (covert) narcissism may try to compensate their shame with fantasies of perfection, idealizing the “perfect” relationship, or beliefs that they are superior to others, even if their behavior is more introverted, shy, or appears altruistic.
Unlearning Toxic Shame
Living with unprocessed childhood shame is a painful experience and has negative consequences on the quality of our adult intimate relationships. If untreated, shame can carry increased risks of narcissistic adaptations, depression, anxiety, and repeating our unresolved childhood trauma through our intimate relationships. Speaking with a therapist or counselor can help.