As an EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) practitioner I ask my clients all the time, “How does that make you feel? What emotion does that bring up for you?” While I often hear guilt and shame being used interchangeably, they are related but not the same.
Guilt is feeling bad about a particular action you have taken. If you did something you consider wrong such as lie to, cheat, betray or hurt somebody, then guilt is an appropriate feeling and can be a catalyst for self-improvement. From guilt can come remorse, which implies a genuine sorrow at having hurt someone. Remorse generally leads to positive deeds such as admitting your mistakes, taking responsibility for your actions, a true apology, and a commitment to changing your behavior.
On the other hand, if you know you tried your best in the situation, yet are feeling that whatever happened is completely your fault and are shouldering a disproportionate amount of blame, this is something to look at more closely. Are you someone who feels guilty all the time, even about things that couldn’t possibly be your fault? If so, this probably comes from a pattern learned in childhood and may also be blurring into shame.
Shame is a close cousin of guilt, but is not the same. While guilt is an acknowledgement that your behavior was bad, shame is a deep-seated feeling that you are bad. While appropriate guilt is a healthy response to wrong-doing because it can serve as a catalyst for self-improvement, shame is a debilitating emotion that can lead to depression, aggression, addiction, bullying, eating disorders, or suicide.
Embarrassment and humiliation are again closely related, but different. Embarrassment comes from something you or someone else did to make you feel foolish. It is usually fairly mild like realizing you just gave a presentation with a large chunk of kale stuck between your front teeth or cringing while your mother tells stories about your teenage years to your new romantic partner. After the initial discomfort passes, it can often be turned into an amusing story.
Humiliation, on the other hand, is not mild or amusing, but deep and traumatic. While embarrassment is generally caused by something you did yourself or a well-meaning other did inadvertently, humiliation is brought on by others’ bad behavior. If in school you answered a question wrong in class, you might feel embarrassed, but if the teacher ridicules you for not knowing the answer and calls you stupid, you would feel humiliated. You would also most likely feel humiliated if you were publicly reprimanded at work or if a partner cheated on you and it became common knowledge.
Humiliation is associated with public failure and a loss of dignity, which can take some work to get over. Humiliation is most damaging, however, when it becomes internalized as shame. A healthy response to humiliation is anger and a feeling of “I didn’t deserve that.” Humiliation becomes internalized as shame, however, when other people’s misdeeds become a belief about yourself: when you believe the teacher who called you stupid was right, take the public reprimand at work as evidence that you are a bad or incapable person, or the fact that your partner cheated on you as proof that you are un-lovable.
The best way I know to deeply process and move through any painful emotion – especially potentially damaging emotions such as inappropriate guilt, humiliation, and shame – is EFT. EFT is an almost magical process that meets your feelings exactly where they are in any given moment and by deeply processing them through your body’s energy system, allows you to transform them in a relatively short period of time. Scientifically proven to reduce the physical symptoms of stress, decrease the emotional intensity around past traumatic events, and rewire the brain to interrupt old, debilitating patterns of thought, EFT is an amazingly powerful tool to literally have at your fingertips.