Working Definitions

So, I did something that I said I wasn’t going to do; namely, I’ve started reading I Thought It Was Just Me by Brené Brown instead of re-reading another of her books, The Gifts of Imperfection, which I recently finished. In today’s reading, the book defines embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, and shame, and differentiates between each term.

Embarrassment is a fleeting emotion, and considered much less serious than either guilt or shame. An example of this would be walking out of a public restroom with toilet paper stuck to the sole of your shoe – a momentary flush, and the almost immediate realization that you aren’t the first person to do it, and you certainly won’t be the last – you are not alone in your experience, in other words.

Brown writes that the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt says “I did something bad,” and shame says “I am bad.” Guilt deals with a person’s actions rather than their identity, like shame does. Repetitive instances of guilt can lead to shame, however, as being consistently told that you’ve done something bad or wrong can oftentimes make that switch in the brain to feeling that you are bad or wrong.

The difference in humiliation and shame is that people experiencing humiliation don’t feel that they deserve the action or statement that’s causing the emotion, whereas people experiencing shame feel that they do deserve to feel that way. Again, repeated humiliation can evolve into shame – if you hear something often enough, you start to believe it yourself.

These definitions are very handy to have as I start to pick apart my own feelings of shame. They will be helpful in determining which emotion I’m experiencing in the future, when in the past it’s all felt like the same thing. I think correctly identifying what I’m experiencing will be a first step to overcoming the worst of it.

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