Widening the Divide Between Guilt and Shame

Guilt = I did something wrong. Shame = I am wrong. These are the simple definitions researcher/social worker Brene Brown gives for guilt and shame. Why is the distinction important? Based on thousands of interviews that Brown and her team have conducted she makes the conclusion that those who live life wholeheartedly (and not out fear and anxiety) are those who experience vulnerability deeply and are shame resilient. A large part of being shame resilient is knowing the difference between shame and guilt.

The degree towards which we can keep the distinction between shame and guilt is the same degree which we can grow from failure in our own life. One good barometer to measure our capability to keep shame distinct from guilt is our response to failures in the lives of others.

This last week the news has been full of a story about a professional football player, Ray Rice, who struck his fiancee, now wife, in an elevator and knocked her out cold. What he did was wrong, without question, but many are treating him as if he is now less-than-human because of this action.

The danger of confusing guilt and shame as seen in the treatment that this player has received concerning his terrible, and wrong action, is that it is reflective to how we handle failure in our own life. The same vitriol that we throw at another when they have done something wrong is similar to how we treat our self when we fail.

Ray Rice does need to receive discipline for the wrong he did, but he also needs a community around him who helps him know that he is more than this event. All of us need people in our lives who remind us again and again that we are not defined by our greatest failure or our greatest success. Brene Brown calls this process engaged feedback.

When we think of feedback, most of us probably picture ourselves sitting in a chair in front of a large desk with a boss on the other side, or a long table with a whole group of people behind it. That style of feedback drives us to view our mistakes as defining characteristics of our lives, and so we typically go to great lengths to protect and defend our work. In these meetings we do not hear anything that is said because to admit a failure is to admit that we are a failure.

Now imagine receiving feedback and the person or people evaluating you are sitting next to you, and in front of you is some sort of performance review or something similar. Just by physical posture alone, this communicates something different. Sitting next to someone says to them “I am with you.” Sitting next to someone while examining and evaluating their work creates physical space between a person and their work, and communicates that they are not defined by their performance or action. We typically have a hard time admitting fault because we are concerned that our mistakes will drive people away from us, so if the first action of someone is to sit beside us, it frees us to look honestly at our jobs, our marriages, our relationships, and gives us space to admit mistakes and see what we can do differently and hopefully better.

Brown concludes that living wholeheartedly rises solely out of one belief a person has about himself or herself. That belief? Believing that you are worthy of love and belonging. This belief is under attack by the stories of shame we are told by our self and others. We counter this belief in two ways. 1. Knowing that because of Jesus we belong to God and to one another and are loved by God regardless of our past, present, or future. 2. Being in relationship with others where we can give and receive engaged feedback about the way we live in the world.

I wonder if the news in the NFL this last week would be a lot different if there were more mentoring programs where mature adults could come along side these twenty-somethings and provide this type of engaged feedback. And then I wonder how my life would be different if I, myself, experienced more engaged feedback.