How Can Adult Children Differentiate Guilt From Shame?

Based upon my seven-year recovery efforts in three twelve step programs, I have discovered that there are terms whose definitions are so closely related, that most would think that there was no difference between them. But there are and those differences, while subtle, can aid a person’s understanding of the effects of his dysfunctional upbringing. Here I refer to the terms “guilt” and “shame.”When Harper Lee published the prequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 2015, she entitled it “Go Set a Watchman.” That term, “watchman,” refers to everyone’s personal monitor, or conscience, which watches and assesses his misdeeds, whether they be lies, cheats, or injustices, and generates emotional, neurological, and physiological responses that are less than pleasant and settling, such fitful night sleeps, until the infraction is owned, confessed, and appropriate amends are made. In other words, the person feels “guilty.” And therein is the definition of the first of the two terms. Guilt is what a person feels for his misdeeds or infractions, provided his “watchman” is in working order. Experience has indicated that not all are.Because alcoholism is a disease, it causes a malfunction of it, as toxins intercept the neuro-receptor links that otherwise alert a person of his actions and generate feelings of guilt. Add the unquestioned repetition of detrimental behavior on his own offspring he himself most likely experienced as a child, denial, ignorance, and the lack of remorseful, regretful, or empathical feelings that would ordinarily prompt him to correct his actions, and it ensures the perpetuation of intra-generational child abuse.Although this parent’s conscience can be considered broken and beyond working order, that of his children, who helplessly field the chaos of their upbringings, also become faulty because of them.When my own child abuse left me amiss to understand what I initially considered justifiable punishment for infractions I could never determine, it created a hairpin trigger in my brain, bypassing the reason for it (because there was none) and generating the guilt. I learned that I was guilty even when I was not.”I grew up with guilt and blame, amidst harsh criticism and constant fear,” an Al-Anon Program member shared in its “Courage to Change “text (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992, p. 120). “Even now, after years of recovery, when past mistakes come to mind, I tend to react with guilt, exaggerating the significance of my errors and thinking very badly of myself.”Because of my own propensity toward this emotion, I accepted responsibility for the actions of others when I was in school or at work. If it was discovered that an error had been made, I flushed red, misbelieving that I had somehow caused it, when, in fact, I had not, and sometimes falsely led people into thinking that I had because of my very (faulty) reactions.Reduced to the same powerless, voiceless child, even as an adult who had once been cultivated as a victim, and forced to accept the blame and burden my father could not, I was unable to defend myself against such apparent injustices.”Before recovery, most adult children assume they are wrong whatever the situation might be,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics “textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 15). “If a mistake is make on the job, the adult child takes responsibility for it. If someone feels upset, we think we might have done something to cause the feelings in another… Because of our shaming childhoods, adult children doubt and blame themselves in a knee-jerk reaction that is predictable and consistent, yet rarely observed until recovery is encountered.”It continues by emphasizing the absurdity of this dynamic (ibid, p. 115). “Many adult children doubt themselves, criticize themselves, and feel inadequate without much prompting. Who, (for example), could have his house burglarized and feel at fault for the burglary? An adult child! Who could feel guilty for asking someone blocking a driveway to move? An adult child!”Contrasted with guilt, which is an unease or regret for a wrongful or neglectful act against another, shame is what an adult child feels for what he is-or at least believes that he is. His childhood is once again the culprit for this faulty reasoning.”Being shamed by our parents or a relative represents the loss of being able to feel whole as a person,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook advises (ibid, p. 200). “Shame tramples a child’s natural love and trust and replaces it with malignant self-doubt. With shame, we lose our ability to trust ourselves or others. We feel inherently faulty as a child. As adults, we can have a mistaken sense that something is wrong with us without knowing why… This represents a loss of feeling valued as a person by our family.”Shame is thus the feeling-and mistaken belief-that a person is inherently flawed–that he is inferior, less-than, inadequate, defective, and not equal to others.Demoralized by their upbringing and subjected to parental projections consisting of their own negative and inadequate feelings during some two decades of their upbringings, adult children soon adopt this misbelief.But Al-Anon’s “Courage to Change” recognizes this as a distortion with an affirmation, which states, “Today I will love myself enough to recognize shame is an error in judgment” (op. cit., p. 57).For an adult child, his ability to recognize his errors in judgement about both his pervasive feelings of guilt and shame, and the difference between the two, can immeasurably aid his recovery.Sources:”Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Torrance, California: World Service Organization, 2006.”Courage to Change.” Virginia Beach, Virginia: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992.