Guilt and shame are emotions that men who have been sexually abused can often confront. Guilt and shame are sometimes used interchangeably, and both can appear in relation to the same act, though they are slightly different in their experience and impact on sense of self. The similarities can be seen in the standard definitions:
Guilt: a feeling of responsibility or remorse for committing some offense or crime, or doing something wrong or silly, etc.
Shame: a mentally painful feeling that comes from doing something wrong, dishonorable, improper, or silly, etc.
The difference is that, whereas guilt is a judgement identifying responsibility in relation to engagement in a particular 'act', shame is a judgement in relation to the person and how we feel about them or ourselves. Shame is an inward feeling that says, 'I am damaged goods', 'This is what I am', 'I am bad', 'I am shameful'. This is in contrast to guilt, which says, 'I/you’ve done something wrong or bad'.
An additional tricky aspect of guilt and shame is that they can appear in relation to being involved a particular act, even though the person did not intend to commit the offence, or for harm to occur. For men who have been sexually abused by men, there is the also that added difficulty that sexual contact between males has a history in our culture of being identified as 'shameful' in and of itself.
Guilt is something that can be easier to manage and deal with than shame, in that it relates to a specific act. Guilt can be a constructive feeling if it leads to someone taking responsibility, and taking steps to amend or address a damage done, but can be unproductive if the burden is taken on and isn't warranted. The feeling of shame, however, can be more debilitating, as it involves more intense feelings of pain, embarrassment, humiliation, and worthlessness, which can be both acute/momentary and chronic/generalised ('I am a loser').
Points about shame:
- Shame is developed in early childhood (by age 3-5).
- Shame can exist before a child is verbal (thus hard to articulate).
- It is more intense and arousing—a 'bigger feeling' than guilt.
- Shame suggests something wrong with me (vs. something I have done wrong).
- Shame provokes hiding (vs. making amends or reparations).
Feelings and reactions to shame:
- Rage and/or aggression (internalised/externalised).
- Alcohol and drug use/abuse.
- Problematic sexual behaviours.
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