Shame and guilt are emotional terms that are all-too-readily used interchangeably and yet there is a definite divide between the two. Guilt can be defined as a negative emotional reaction to something we have DONE. Shame can be defined as a negative emotional reaction to WHO WE ARE. The two are quite different in how they make us feel internally as well as in how we cope with them. Guilt can more often be alleviated through changes in behaviors that better ensure the offending/inappropriate actions are not repeated. In other words-stop the offending action=stop the negative emotions.
Shame, however, often runs much more internally. Because it is the result of how we intrinsically feel about ourselves, it is much deeper rooted. Victims and survivors of abuse-sexual, physical, emotional-often experience shame as a result of what has been done to them. They are left with a feeling of being flawed, wrong, dirty, and unable to be loved due to the actions of another. Shame is an emotional state that is immensely painful for the client suffering through it and it is a difficult emotional state for a therapist to help alleviate. One of the most powerful tools a therapist has when assisting a client in working through their abuse-based shame is empathy and validation. Reassuring your patient that, as a human being, they are worthy and innately good and bear no responsibility for that which they have experienced can have a profound effect. This validation of a lack of blame coupled with bolstering their self-worth can help turn a sense of shame into a sense of resilience. And that strength rising out of the ashes of abuse and shame, it is a truly beautiful thing.