Guilt and shame are two incredibly powerful emotions. Often used interchangeably, guilt is specific to regret regarding an action or decision. However, in the words of Brené Brown, shame is “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”  Guilt is about something we’ve done; shame is about who we are. Sometimes, these emotions arise due to an action, decision or belief of our own. Other times, these emotions come up based on the words or actions of those around us.

An important practice with these emotions is separating the productive and necessary feelings from the toxic and inaccurate beliefs. This can be done through a few key steps:

  Hit pause: It is easy to get swept up in shame or guilt, but stepping back to identify the thoughts and beliefs that are fueling this reaction is vital. An uninterrupted, shame-based thought cycle only digs us deeper into despair, but stepping back to identify our thoughts and beliefs allows us to interrupt that cycle and think more clearly and productively.

  Identify facts: Of the thoughts and beliefs identified, which are factual and based in reality? It can be challenging to separate reality from perception. However, having a trusted friend, family member, or counselor involved in this step can provide us with more accurate information and help us eliminate toxic beliefs.

  Take ownership: For some, this may involve reckoning with one’s choices and their effect those around them. For others, it may be acknowledging that a false belief—based on the harmful words or actions of others—has been guiding one’s life. Sometimes, this step means taking on more ownership, and other times it means setting aside a responsibility or belief that was never ours to carry in the first place.

  Practice self-compassion: We are all human. We will hurt others and we will experience hurt. We will carry false beliefs around about our identity and let them guide our life. Shame wants to bury us under the “I should…/I always…/I never…” of all the things we did or didn’t do. Self-compassion , balanced with ownership, offers us a respite from shame and allows grace to enter our circumstance.

  Embrace vulnerability: Acknowledge your limits, struggles, imperfections and mistakes. Ask for both help and forgiveness, and know that choices and mistakes do not change your innate value and worth as a person.

Nick Finnegan Counseling Center Series

Throughout the sermon series, Getting Through the Storms, licensed therapists from the Nick Finnegan Counseling Center (NFCC) write to help us understand what happens to us when we experience betrayal, illness, grief, and guilt and shame.

Part of St. Luke’s, Nick Finnegan Counseling Center’s mission is to help people of all beliefs address emotional stress by connecting them with professional counseling, support groups and referrals. For more information about the counselors and services, visit or call 713-402-5046.