I’ve read, a number of times, the difference between guilt and shame. I confess that, up until a few days ago, I might not have been able to accurately recount what I’ve read. But, in a TED Talk, University of Houston professor Brene Brown lays out the difference in a way that I believe will stick with me.
She begins the “shame” part of her talk by explaining that guilt is regret for something one has done, whereas shame means feeling badly about what one is, or perceives oneself to be. That much, I’m sure, is consistent with what I’ve read in the past. Here’s the part of Dr. Brown’s take on the subject that will stay with me: a person feeling guilt thinks, “I made a mistake”; a person feeling shame thinks, “I am a mistake.”
That’s the difference in the two concepts, but there are also big differences in the effects of these feelings. Shame is associated with low self-esteem, depression, and other psychological dysfunctions. Guilt, on the other hand, is unpleasant in the moment, but can lead to growth in psychological functioning as well in skills, such as consensus building.
Knowing the difference is important because building consensus is not an exact science. Rarely, if ever, will you walk away from a consensus-seeking conversation feeling that you scored a perfect ten. You can almost always think of something you could have done better. As I’ve written in a previous article, you should compare what you did, not with the “perfect” conversation, but rather, with how your conversation would have gone had you not employed your skills.
When something goes wrong, follow these tips to avoid destructive shame and learn from the experience in a healthy, high functioning manner:
First, monitor your head talk. Any time you find yourself thinking, “I am…” completing the sentence with some negative term, it’s time to shift gears. It’s not enough to tell yourself to banish that thought. On the contrary, trying not to think of something tends to cause that thing to pop into your mind. Right now, try not thinking of an apple. If you see an apple in your mind’s eye, you also see what I mean.
Instead, change the “I am” statement to an “I did” statement. “I’m a screw up” could become “I did something ineffective by arguing my point instead of asking an open question.” Make this mental change a habit. Do it any time you label yourself, as opposed to assessing what you did. “I’m a slob” could become “I did not put my clothes away.” “I’m a loser” can become “I did not score in this game.” You can use other action words in place of “did.” “I’m a slob” could also become “I left dishes in the sink overnight.”
You can add a little icing to this cake by further modifying the new statement to frame it in a more upbeat light. “I made a mistake by arguing my point…” can become “I missed an opportunity by arguing my point when I could have asked an open question.”
Secondly, think about what you can learn from the experience and solidify that lesson by visualizing yourself performing better in the future. In the example above, you can formulate some open questions you might have asked the other party to your conversation. Visualize a future conversation in which you ask that person similar open questions. See and hear her responding in a calm, collaborative manner.
You will soon find your confidence growing along with your consensus building skills.