Hopefully you all got a chance to read Wednesday’s post, but if not, take a second to run and check it. In that one we talk all about how to figure out what your personal values are, and here we are gonna talk about what happens when you live your life in a way that is different than those values.
The reason values are important is because they make up what you think about yourself. If I asked you to describe yourself without anything superficial – your name, age, location, job, hobbies, or family situation – the things you’d be most likely to say are your values and your beliefs. These things make up our definitions of our selves.
Okay, so now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about shame and guilt.
Shame and guilt are two sides of the same coin. Both are in response to doing something that goes against our set of values, but they manifest in two really different ways. You experience guilt when you are concerned about what you did and how it affected other people. You experience shame when you are concerned about who you are and what other people will think of you.
When you do something that isn’t in alignment with our values, most of the time we feel either shame or guilt as a result. If you do something that’s a one time error, it tends to be more likely that you feel guilt, whereas if you are consistently doing something that is against your values, you are more likely to feel shame.
Here’s the thing. Guilt is good. Everyone makes mistakes or sometimes just compromises, and that’s okay. There are a lot of good things that happen when you feel guilt. You’re more likely to confess, apologize, or work towards undoing the behavior you feel guilt about. Since the emotion of guilt is so associated with the effect on others, it actually increases your empathy for those people, and overall you take responsibility for your actions.
However, shame is basically the opposite. When you keep doing things that compromise your values, there are tons of negative effects. People who experience shame are more likely to lie, hide their mistake, or try to escape the situation they created. Shame creates division, as the person experiencing shame is more focused on the consequences for themselves than for others. Shame often turns into blaming others and leads to anger towards those people as well. In the long term, shame is correlated with a lot of other things, like depression, anxiety, low self esteem, a tendency towards underage drinking or adult substance abuse, and other risky behaviors.
I’ll give you an example here. Let’s say a value you strongly believe in is that environmental stewardship is really important, and that one of the most important things a person can do for that is to try and minimize their waste and recycle more. You go to a restaurant and forget to ask them to not bring a straw, so your drink comes with one automatically. You feel guilt about this small error, because you’re concerned about the effect you’ll have on the environment with this straw, so you decide to make up for it by buying a friend a reusable straw to help the cause, and you feel all good and normal again.
Okay so same you, same value. You post on Facebook about your new no straw habit, and someone replies pointing out that straws make up less then a tenth of one percent of plastic waste in the ocean, but discarded and broken fishing gear makes up more than half, so if you really want to make a difference, you should stop eating seafood. You research this and discover that it’s true, but man you really don’t want to stop eating fish. As you continue to eat seafood, your brain reminds you every time that this isn’t in alignment with your personal values, and you begin to feel shame. When people talk about plastic waste, you begin to feel defensive. You might lie and say you are eating a lot less fish now, even though it’s not true. You might attack whoever else is in the conversation with you, telling them that they aren’t trying hard enough or making any difference, because at least you’re still good about straws. You feel a lot more unhappy.
Are there things you’re doing in your life that aren’t alignment with your values? Think about your job, your relationships with friends and family, even the food you eat. If you find that there are things that are at odds, you need to decide: do I want to change my behavior or do I need to change my value? I’ll talk a little more in Sunday’s post about whether or not your values are serving you, but take some time to do a little self reflection before then.