Mommy Guilt vs. Mommy Shame. What's the Difference and Why Should You Care?

In my previous posts I have written about wonderful things mommy guilt says about you as well as ways to keep mommy guilt in check.  I trust that you found this information valuable and helpful.  But I have a confession to make.   I recently realized that, even as a mental health professional, I have been talking about the terms "guilt" and "shame" interchangeably.  In fact, I have not really referred to shame at all!  What is clear to me now is that "guilt" and "shame" are not at all the same thing, and that it is important for us to recognize and talk about shame.  The topic of shame has traditionally remained silenced in our society-- including by mental health professionals like myself-- because it is too painful and uncomfortable for most of us to acknowledge, let alone talk about.  Thus, in this post I would like to give voice to the hidden emotion of shame, attempting to clarify how it is different from guilt, and discussing how it plays a role in our struggle as working mothers. 

In her book  "I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't)," Dr. Brene Brown defines shame in the following way: "shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging."  She goes on to explain that, unlike what many people may think, shame is not reserved for people who have gone through a major psychological trauma, such as sexual or physical abuse. Rather, shame is present in all of us and it is triggered in any areas in our lives in which we feel defective or not good enough.  This may include areas such as our finances, class status, education, body image, family background, sexual preferences, marital status, substance use, motherhood, suffering from chronic illness, and many other areas.   

Shame is an emotion that makes us feel small and disconnected from others.   It leads us to feel alone in our pain, as if we were the only ones who feel, think, or behave a certain way.  It is an experience of isolation that is fed by blame and judgment, both from ourselves and from others.  Furthermore, when we are in a state of shame we are likely to not talk about our pain because of fear of rejection and judgment.  This makes shame even more powerful and insidious because it thrives on secrecy.  In addition, when we are in shame we are likely to engage in destructive behaviors such as isolating ourselves, engaging in various forms of self-harm (e.g. overeating, cutting, substance abuse), or  we may lash out (like when we yell at our partner or kids for no apparent reason) or put others down to make ourselves feel better.  In short, blame is a destructive emotion.

Having conducted research on shame for over 10 years, Brene Brown found that motherhood is one of the areas in which women experience shame.  I agree that this is a vulnerable area because as caring moms we're constantly questioning whether or not we're doing what's best for our children, wondering whether we're doing enough, whether we are "good enough."   I think this is in part because of the messages that we get from society and the media about what a "good mom" is or does.  In addition we may come from family environments in which we were criticized or judged growing up, or we may have family members or friends who frequently criticize our parenting decisions, shaking our confidence.  

Given these factors and considering that motherhood presents us with never-ending challenges and daily decisions, it is not surprising that we should be vulnerable to experiencing shame in this area of our lives.  Further, our culture dictates that women who work are supposed to give the job 100% and that they must leave their personal lives outside of work.  Simultaneously we are expected to be the primary caregivers of our children, the carpool drivers, the school lunch packers, the keepers of the family social calendar, the errand-runners, and the principal cleaners and organizers in our homes.  This sets us up for conflicting demands and roles. It also sets us up for experiencing shame when we fail to meet these expectations.   

Most of us know that the separation of work and home is artificial and often untenable, as we frequently have family responsibilities and unexpected situations which may interfere with work, such as tending to sick children, dealing with childcare or off-school days, having to leave early for appointments or parent-teacher conferences, etc.  And what about caring for sick or elderly family members?  Women are often the ones managing such responsibilities in addition to work, household duties, and parenting responsibilities. Thus, I think it should come as no surprise that shame is likely to be triggered for us in the area of motherhood, in addition to other areas of our lives.  I personally have experienced shame-driven thoughts like "I'm a terrible mom," "I don't know what I'm doing,"  and "What's wrong with me?"  Again, Dr. Brown validates that we all experience shame; it is universal and no one is immune.  While it is impossible to get rid of it completely, we can spend less time in shame and reduce its destructive impact by becoming aware of our own shame and what triggers it, by reaching out for support, by expressing empathy, and by talking about our feelings of shame with others we can trust.

What does this all have to do with mommy guilt?   As I mentioned in my previous articles on the topic, I believe that experiencing mommy guilt has its positive aspects and even says great things about our core values.  Having learned more about shame-- my own and others'-- I find that my perspective on mommy guilt is supported by Brene Brown's work about shame and how it is different from guilt. 

Dr. Brown points out in her book that we often see and engage in the use of shaming as a way to get ourselves or someone else (such as our kids) to change a behavior.  Dr. Brown says that this is not only ineffective but also hurtful because of shame's profound detrimental impact on our sense of feeling valuable and worthy as a human being.  Someone who is shamed into changing is unlikely to engage in positive change and may rather feel paralyzed and helpless to do anything to alter their situation or their behavior.  This is because the person's internal dialogue is likely saying things like: "I am bad," "I'm a hopeless case," or "I'm a screw-up."   

By contrast, when someone feels guilty she is evaluating her actions, not herself.   Rather than saying "I am bad" the message of guilt is "I did something bad."  Shame is about who we are and guilt is about our behaviors.  This distinction is critical because when we feel guilty it means that we see a discrepancy between our actions and our values and beliefs.  This,  in turn, is likely to lead us to correct or change our behavior so that it is more consistent with those values and beliefs.  But if we see ourselves as "bad" or "no good" it is likely that we will continue to behave in ways that fulfill those labels. 

Taking into account this distinction between shame and guilt we can begin to recognize when we are feeling guilty versus when we are in shame.   We can also see how moving from shame to guilt would be a healthy and desirable mental and emotional shift.  Whereas shame prompts us to remain passive because it contaminates our soul and drives us away from connection and relationships, experiencing guilt prompts us to take appropriate actions to correct behaviors that are not consistent with the way we see ourselves or the way we want to be.  

Dr. Brown insists that "speaking shame" is crucial to developing shame resilience.  Because shame thrives when we keep it secret and it breeds disconnection among us, the antidote to it consists of becoming aware of it, talking about it, experiencing compassion and empathy for others when they're in shame, and reaching out for support when we're the ones drowning in it.   This has significant implications for our emotional wellbeing and the wellbeing of our children.  If we can learn how to identify and deal with shame, we will be in a much better position to seek and experience joy and connection, and to pass down these important benefits to our kids.