Why Shame is Destructive But Guilt is Creative

The difference between shame and guilt may be the difference between never really living and using this one life to draw beautiful, redemptive pictures of love and belonging…

guilt versus shame

Photo Credit: &y via Compfight cc

On a Friday morning, my three-year-old daughter was drawing me a picture with a colored pencil. Her face was screwed up with concentration, nose crinkled, dimples lopsided. She let out a big-dramatic sigh and said, “I made a mistake; I need to erase it.”

I tried not to laugh as I looked at the random loops and swirls of abstract toddlerhood and wondered to myself, “Honey, how can chaos contain mistakes?”

But I fetched an eraser anyway, and she started to rub. However, colored pencil doesn’t erase—it smudges. So she rubbed harder. And the “mistake” got worse and worse.

And worse.

She flung down her pencil and began to tear the paper to shreds.

I don’t think my daughter was feeling ashamed about her drawing—I think she was being a three-year-old. Yet, on a Friday morning, I think she gave me an image of the way shame destroys us:

Shame is like the crummy pencil eraser of life—it mires us in an endless, hopeless effort to erase our mistakes. And it tears up our lives in the process.

Destructive Shame…

Shame is the “you’re not good enough” lie seductively whispering at the edge of our fragile souls. It convinces us our mistakes and shortcomings and failures and faults are who we are. It convinces us we need to erase our mistakes and our mess if we are to be worthy of love and belonging.

So we spend our life mired in depressive regrets about words and actions and days and years we wish we could take back. Or we spend our nights in anxious rumination about how everyone reacted when we said this or did that. We quietly beat ourselves up and wish for a do-over.

But the truth is, our mistakes are written in the colored pencil of time—time can’t be reversed and our mistakes can’t be erased.

There are no do-overs.

Yet shame keeps us stuck in this endless cycle of hopeless attempts to erase or hide our history and ourselves. It immobilizes us. It shuts us down. And in doing so, it can destroy a life—one paralyzed day at a time.

But there is another way.

…Creative Guilt

The way out of our shame is not to erase our mistakes. The way out of our shame is to feel guilty about them.

Guilt is shame redeemed by grace.

Shame tells us we are lousy. Guilt tells us we did something lousy.

Shame whispers, “Your mistakes define you.” But guilt proclaims, “We are defined by redemption, not by transgressions.”

Whereas shame seeks to hide the past, guilt claims the past.

Shame says you are corrupt and rotten and weak and powerless and you should hide because anything you do will be another failure. But guilt says, “Yes, I messed up. I’m guilty as charged. But my mess doesn’t define me. And because it doesn’t define me, I can do something different now.”

Shame looks backward interminably. Guilt glances backward and then moves forward.

Shame coerces us into passivity. Guilt propels us into action.

Shame buries our mistakes. Guilt apologizes for them.

Shame disconnects us from people. Guilt propels us into the arms of people.

Shame is a lie we swallow. Guilt is the truth we tell.

Shame is the death of us. Guilt is the beginning of a resurrection.

The Blank Page

As my daughter began to sink to the floor on the verge of a meltdown, I suggested, “Instead of erasing that picture, how about you draw me another one?”

She stopped mid-tantrum, crumpled paper in hand, and a smile evened out her dimples a bit.

I pointed at her big stack of blank papers and said, “You can draw me a bunch of new ones.”

I wonder if redemptive guilt is really just the voice of grace, whispering quietly to us, “Hush, little one. Quit trying so hard to erase and hide the past. You’re learning and growing and every time you mess up and try again, let’s rejoice. So put that eraser away, own your mistakes, and let’s try again, even if it’s a glorious mess.”

My daughter looked at me, bounced to her feet, and attacked a new blank page with abandon.

Drawing Redemptive Pictures With Our Lives

In life, we can listen to our shame—we can focus on all of our mistakes and we can get hopelessly bogged down in trying to analyze them, erase them, justify them, or hide them.

Or we can approach every day like a new sheet of paper. The size of the stack is different for each of us, of course—our remaining days are all differently numbered.

But if we have only a single page on our stack—only one day remaining to live—we have one blank page on which to draw a new, redemptive picture of our lives.

We can draw pictures of courage and vulnerability.

We can draw pictures of apology and forgiveness.

We can draw picture of love and sacrifice.

Today is a new day. Today is our blank page. Today is pregnant with the possibility of a new picture, a redemptive event, a beautiful love.

What will we do with today’s blank page?


Comments: You can share your thoughts or reactions at the bottom of this post

Google Video Hangout: I’m beginning to prepare the first focus group about shame, grace, relationships, and life. The first meeting will focus on clarifying the differences between shame, guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation. Remember, it’s not a therapeutic group—you are going to be teaching me about these important topics! If you are interested in participating, you can click here to email me your name and email address, and I will include you in future updates.

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Preview: This week’s planned post about marriage and relationships was unfinished when the flooding hit Chicago last week. Assuming no more natural disasters, it will be the next post on Wednesday, May 1, and is tentatively entitled, “The Most Important Thing to Look for in a Life Partner.”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

15 thoughts on “Why Shame is Destructive But Guilt is Creative

  1. Thank you, Kelly. It seems with guilt we accept the opportunity for a do-over… not erasing or smudging what has been done… but acknowledging it and learning from it… and doing it differently this time around. Or even doing something else entirely.

    • Absolutely, Catharine. Somehow, guilt feels like the first step toward freedom, toward “something else entirely.”

  2. I am thankful for each new day that the Lord has given me because it enables me to begin again. It is in knowing I am not stuck on a certain path forever but have the ability each new day to try again to live my life better. We all make mistakes and it is in accepting them and learning from them that we open ourselves up to become the people we always wanted to be.
    Thanks Kelly!

  3. So, I was wondering if you could put an idea in your blog post
    idea hopper: how do you deal with shame at work?


Yesterday one of my co-workers got fired, and it’s hurting me
    a bit today. I had always sensed that she carried a lot of shame, and it hurt her
    a lot to lose the job. I remember that quote about how shame feeds on weaker
    creatures, and I really felt that dynamic while working with this person. If
    she wasn’t doing well in her job, this terrible thing would rise up in me and
    want to point it out and show how much better I was doing at my job, and it was
    awful. I tried to take a deep breath and counteract it, to say some little
    thing to offer dignity and ownership and encouragement. But I didn’t always
    succeed. Sometimes annoyance slipped into my voice, or I just failed to listen
    because I didn’t want to feel her sadness, because it reminded me of mine, and
    I didn’t like it.

    It seems to me that in most workplaces, you’re expected to draw
    up a strict separation between everything work and everything personal. But it
    doesn’t really work out that way, because you always bring your whole self to
    your job, including all your wounds. So work rejection feels like personal
    rejection, no matter how many times someone says, “You’re a good person,
    but we have to let you go. It’s business.” I know that part of pushing
    aside shame is learning to tell yourself that you’re more than your
    performance, but at work, performance is pretty much all anyone else is looking
    at. Mistakes matter.


I don’t actually know what I’m getting at here, exactly. Maybe
    all I’m saying is that I would like to figure out how to stop contributing to
    the shame and competition vortex I often feel the workplace to be.

    • This is a really good question. I appreciate your thoughtfulness about your co-worker, even though it perhaps didn’t always work out ideally. I will definitely think about a post. In the meantime, Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, has a whole section on shame in the workplace, and the way a culture of scarcity foments competition and kills cooperation and creativity. If you haven’t read it, you might find it helpful.

  4. Thanks for this great post. I have learnt so much from Brene Brown and recommend the Super Soul Sunday double posts with Oprah as a great introduction to this topic. Your beautiful daughter will enjoy the books by Peter H Reynolds that address this issue in The dot (make your mark) and -ish (love the mistakes) and Rose’s Garden (do what you can to make a difference). The Fablevision site has lots of great resources too. I’d love to be part of the discussions if you can add me to the list through this post (I can receive emails but not send them or get messages on fb – thanks)

    • I have an issue with a daughter who has rejected me using her own shame as the factors doing so and it has saddened me. I can only hope she might read this article and understand her reasons for doing so are irrational because I have always been there for her and was hoping for a bit more…

  5. Pingback: When the Critics are Loud, May Our Courage Be Louder | UnTangled

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