Why Shame is Destructive But Guilt is Creative

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?

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.