What is the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?

  • Type of process: Community Group Conference
  • Conference Participants:
    • Offender- Elizabeth (16)
    • Offender Support- Elizabeth’s mother (Sarah)
    • Offender- Ann (16)
    • Offender Support- Ann’s father (Joe) and Joe’s girlfriend (Jenna)
    • 2 Facilitators
    • 2 Community Members
    • Kohl’s Loss Prevention Officer
  • Criminal Charges Pending: Theft (misdemeanor) 
  • Referring agent: Police Department
  • Factual Synopsis: Two 16-year-olds stole clothing and jewelry from Kohl’s. When Loss Prevention approached them at the door, they ran and hid in neighboring businesses.
  • Narrative:

I recently watched a TED Talk by Brene Brown that outlined the difference between shame and guilt. Brown explained that shame is a focus on self, whereas guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt says, “I did something bad.” Guilt allows us to compare a bad action to our values and see the action as different from the person we intrinsically are. Shame does not allow us to make that distinction.

Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders. When we see ourselves as intrinsically bad, we exhibit destructive behavior. Guilt, however, is inversely correlated with those same things. Guilt has power because it allows us to examine a thought, word or action next to the image of who we are or who we want to be and change our behavior accordingly. Guilt allows us to separate people from behavior, and gives us the power to make changes and repair harms.

In restorative justice, we emphasize separation of the person from their behavior. For example, we talk about the decision a person made to steal an item and the impacts of that decision. This conversation may generate guilt, by allowing the person who stole to see the ripple effects of theft and the ways in which the action does not align with their perception of self. However, in this conversation, we do not label the person a thief. Calling a person a thief can create shame and encourage the person to associate the poor action with who he/she is intrinsically. This removes the person’s power and agency for change. This shame can also lead the recipient to reject the person, agency, or society that is making him/her feel shame and can lead to further criminal behavior.

I recently facilitated a case that illustrated this difference between shame and guilt and the impact of these two different ways of approaching a wrongdoing on the lives of two 16-year-old women.

Elizabeth and Ann had heard from friends that it would be easy to steal from Kohl’s so they decided to try to take some back-to-school clothes and jewelry. They stuffed the items into backpacks and purses and walked through the front door with nearly $1000 in merchandise. When the Loss Prevention Officer approached them just outside the door, they ran in separate directions and hid in the restrooms of neighboring businesses. The Loss Prevention Officer followed Elizabeth and gave information to dispatch so that the responding officer would assist him. They tracked down Elizabeth and sent a female officer into the restroom to retrieve her. She was handcuffed and returned to the Loss Prevention office at Kohl’s.

Meanwhile, Ann was not caught. She spent a while hiding in the restroom at a different restaurant. She later said her mind was racing in the bathroom, feeling guilty for what she had done. In telling her story, she said, “I never thought I would be the type of kid to run and hide from the cops.” Eventually, Ann decided to go back to Kohl’s. She turned herself in to Loss Prevention, and because she made the decision to come back and take responsibility, the police officer referred both Elizabeth and Ann to restorative justice.

I met with Elizabeth and her mother Sarah for the first pre-conference. Sarah is a single mother and Elizabeth is the youngest of her four kids. It is clear that they have a very close relationship. Right from the beginning of our conversation, Sarah said, “This isn’t who Elizabeth is. She made a mistake, but she is a really good kid.” I saw that language reflected in Elizabeth. She was emotional while telling the story and talking about how disappointed her mother had been, but through it all, she was clear that it was a mistake and not indicative of her greater character.

I met with Ann and her father Joe and his girlfriend Jenna second. The tone was very different. Ann was struggling from the beginning of our conversation and couldn’t stop crying. She told the story of the theft and her decision to come back to the store to take responsibility. She said, “I’ve made mistakes before, but I’ve always been able to fix them. None this bad, but I still thought I could fix it.” The co-facilitator and I commended her for her bravery and explained that according to the police officer, her returning to the scene is the only reason she and her friend Elizabeth were given the opportunity of restorative justice. Through the conversation, Joe and Jenna sat quietly. When it was Joe’s turn to speak, he talked about how he couldn’t trust Ann anymore and how he wasn’t sure he ever would. Joe said, “Jenna is worried because now Ann is a thief. How can we know that we can trust her in our home?” Comments of this nature continued throughout the conversation. I could see the impact on Ann as her father attacked her character based on this one mistake. I did my best throughout the conversation to bring us back to restorative principles and the co-facilitator and I placed special emphasis on the assets component of the pre-conference which is meant to be an opportunity to see Ann as a whole person, apart from the mistake she made. Still, I could see the shame Ann was feeling.

The conference went well and both girls reached contract. Ann had the opportunity to be seen by a circle of people who are excited to know her as a full person outside of this one mistake. However, the impact of these different family approaches was apparent in their contract items. Both girls shared a desire to do community service to repair harm to their community and both agreed to create posters showing the ripple effects of theft as well as several apology letters to important people in their lives. Elizabeth also wanted to write a letter to herself reminding herself who she is and what is important to her so that she can read it throughout her life when she is feeling down. Ann wanted part of her contract to be getting a letter signed by all of her teachers stating that she is doing well that she could show her dad. Through her behavior in the circle, you could see Ann’s need to be seen by her father for the good things she does.

This case speaks to the need for restorative principles and philosophy in all areas of life. It is not enough to have a restorative alternative to suspension if the classroom culture is punitive. It is not enough to have a restorative justice program in operation if families are still relating through shame and punishment. This movement, which sees crime as a break in relationships and conflict as an opportunity for transformation, repair and greater understanding, needs to touch all facets of life. The real change will come when we are able to make entire communities restorative.

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