What’s the difference between guilt and shame?
Guilt is feeling bad for something you did. Shame is feeling bad because of who you are. There’s a distinct difference, but the two are often intertwined. Sometimes they’re self-imposed, a habit of reacting to a situation by first taking it personally. And sometimes shame and guilt are foisted on you from someone who wants you to feel bad.
I encounter plenty of opportunities at work to feel both. I’m sure you do as well. Guilt and shame are like unwanted hitchhikers you can’t boot out of your vehicle. They arrive and stay in the back seat until your mind can shift to something else.
I went shopping at my workplace this morning and was told that management is clamping down on employees who don’t get receipts checked as they leave the store. This policy exists to clamp down on shoplifting, but I’m sure I’m not the only one affronted by the idea that I’d be taking stuff that isn’t mine.
I get the same attitude from shoppers as I cash out their purchases. They worry that they’ll be accused of stealing even after I check them out. I tell them not to worry, that they have their receipt and the folks at the door know I’m doing my job cashing them out.
Shoplifters, meanwhile, tear products from their packaging and pocket them, or run out fire exits with carts full of their bounty. I wonder if they feel guilty?
It’s so easy for many of us to be overwhelmed with guilt when we don’t have anything to feel guilty for.
I get flashbacks to the corner store that was by my elementary school. The head teacher of the school used to send me there with cash to buy bakery goods for the staff room. I always returned with the requested items and correct change, and in return she’d offer me one of the goodies.
One time, a few years ago, I forgot to check out a bag of flour that was on the low shelf of my shopping cart. I saw it when I got to the car and returned to the store to pay for it because it was the right thing to do. I couldn’t stand the guilt if I’d left with the flour and hadn’t paid for it.
Sometimes these two emotions provoke a defensive reaction. Yesterday I parked an empty freight cart in another department while I hustled to get the cash float from the back office for my till. I intended to use the cart to load up freight in the area next door. But when I returned to my department, across the store, with my cash float, I saw the freight cart had made its way there and was parked in the entrance way.
I knew who it was, even though I hadn’t seen this employee that morning. They take many things personally and given to snap reactions. I pondered this as I pushed the cart back across the store to load up freight, and felt a mixture of shame, guilt and anger. I told myself that this tit-for-tat reaction is so childish, but I still took it to heart. I told a colleague about the incident later and she urged me to forget it. Some people are easily offended, she said. While I agreed, I still felt off.
I wasn’t raised to defend myself against accusations of wrongdoing, so defending myself feels wrong. But keeping all these negative feelings inside makes me upset. The receipt-check at the store has me wondering if the surveillance cameras have spotted me leaving with only a glance around. Staffing shortages often result in no one being there to do the checks. I feel guilty for that even though I’ve made a reasonable effort to comply.
On the other hand, in a couple weeks I’ll be reducing my hours from four days a week to one day, due to my taking on another part-time job with the government. That one day will allow me to keep my discount card and benefits, but even those aren’t worth a continuous onslaught of guilt and shame when I don’t deserve to feel either.