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Shame v guilt

In Buddhism rather than talking of good and bad actions the distinction is made between actions that are harmful to oneself and others, which are considered unskillful, and those that add to the common good and our own wellbeing, which are called skilful. Skilful actions tend to arise from impulses based on creative emotions such as love, generosity, compassion and patience. Unskillful actions in contrast tend to arise from impulses based on unproductive emotions such as anger, hatred, jealousy and fear.

When one acts unskilfully what one then makes that mean about oneself has huge implications on one’s sense of well being and self worth. If I do something that I later feel regret over doing then this may simply be the sign of a healthy conscience at work, flagging up that I’ve down something not in line with my principles. The inner dialogue I then have determines whether this becomes a skilful act of self awareness or an unskillful descent into self disparagement and blame.
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Shame based thinking: Remorse and conscience then are neutral in that it is the workings of the mind and heart to flag up behaviour that in some way does not sit comfortably with one’s code of behaviour. If I then start thinking “What’s wrong with me’, “I’m such a failure”, “This just shows how bad I am”, “I’m such a useless friend” or similar non-nurturing self talk, this is simply activating the latent sense of low self esteem that grabs on to any evidence to prove how rubbish I am. In my experience this shame based thinking does not lead to growth or well being, as there’s only a horrible feeling of worthlessness. Or we may feel so bad at feeling all of this we try to turn the blame on to the other person “Well they deserved it”, “OK my behaviour was out of order but it showed them a lesson” etc.
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Guilt Based thinking: In contrast, if the self talk is more accepting it can enable one to explore what has happened and learn from it: “That was unskilful”(said without judgement but as a simple observation), “That was a stupid thing to do – I’m not stupid, but that certainly was stupid!”,”That leaves me feeling sad/upset/unhappy, I need to remember this and avoid similar actions in the future”. Here I am looking at the action itself not me as a being. With this way of thinking I’m not trying to excuse the action if it was unskilful and I may feel guilt about it, but at the same time I am not condemning myself as a failure. This is a more compassionate approach to oneself.  And when one can forgive and be patient with oneself it becomes easier to be more accepting of others and less judgemental of their actions.
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A Buddhist friend of mine once described himself as being “a mess in progress”. I suppose in a sense we are all messes in progress and it just depends if we can be patient and kind with each other as we trip up and fall short or condemn and criticise ourselves and others. If well being really is “choosing between being right or being happy” then let’s let go of being right about how bad we and others are and instead explore a compassionate and non judgemental acceptance whilst learning how to live more skilfully and do less harm by curbing our unskilful tendencies as we notice them!
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If you would like to see an excellent three minute discussion between Brene Brown and Oprah where Brene Brown clarifies this distinction between shame and guilt which provided the basis for these reflections click here
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