"You should be ashamed of yourself!”
It’s a phrase you may have heard growing up when you hit your younger sister or stole a pack of gum from the grocery store. Yet it seems as though no one had to tell you to be ashamed of yourself for other offenses, particularly offenses related to sexuality. Perhaps you can’t stop feeling ashamed for what you’ve done or what has been done to you. Abortion, sleeping around, same-sex experimentation, rape, pornography—each of these acts can sentence women to a lifetime of shame. Even if you look put-together on the outside, the nagging shame reminds you of your past—a past that always seems to define you.
The Difference Between Shame and Guilt
Because we often use these two words interchangeably, it can be difficult to tease out the difference. Guilt is rooted in something we have done. We can be declared “guilty” by an authority like the legal system. Feelings of guilt are healthy when they reflect our true state of guilt.
But too often our feelings of guilt don’t correspond with the reality of our guilt. For example, while some women backstab, slander, and manipulate others without losing a wink of sleep over it, others can feel tremendous guilt for events that are completely outside of their control. Our feelings of guilt (or lack thereof) are not a reliable barometer for measuring the reality of our guilt.1