There’s a big difference between shame and guilt.
Guilt is the feeling you get when you did something wrong, or perceived you did something wrong, whereas shame is a feeling that your whole self is wrong – a belief that you’re a bad person, or unworthy as an individual.
Now, guilt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be a useful emotion designed to help us right a wrong – to help us realign with our values. That is, provided, we’re not feeling, or made to feel guilty for the wrong reasons. Shame, however, is rarely a useful emotion. It is rooted in low self-esteem. It is very much a product of having a fixed mindset.
I believe there are two responses – broadly speaking – from those who suffer from such a deep-seated shame. On the one hand is the individual who refuses to ever admit to being guilty – who often uses pride as a shield for fear of having to feel any shame.
On the other hand is the individual who lives with excessive guilt – who believes that no apology or action can ever bring them back to feeling good about themselves because they don’t believe they’re capable of being a better person. The problem for the latter, speaking from experience, is the tendency for shame to consume you whenever guilt arises.
A couple of weeks ago something happened that brought up a great deal of guilt for my wife and I. It happened on Father’s day (of all days) when our 5 month old – whom we had placed on the centre of our bed – rolled over several times (something we had never seen him do) right off the side and, with some force, smacked his head.
Now, I’ll interject at this point to save you any heart ache and tell you he’s completely fine. Of course we didn’t know that at the time. There were no signs of concussion, although it took him about 15 minutes to stop crying. We also found a small bump, so we decided to take him to the hospital to have him checked.
While we waited to see the doctor, my wife and I calmed down. It was evident that our boy was himself – smiling and laughing away. No signs of distress or concussion. When we finally saw the doctor he decided it was best to “err on the side of caution” and do a CT scan. He also wanted to keep him overnight for observation to be safe. We agreed despite feeling confident they wouldn’t find anything.
Unfortunately we were wrong.
What they found was a small hairline fracture on the side of his skull. He’d hit the floor much harder than we thought. The doctor told us he’d called in a neurosurgeon to get his opinion and determine the next course of action. In the mean time they put our boy on a drip and demanded we stop feeding him in case they had to take him into surgery.
To say that the next few hours were difficult is to say nothing. When we finally talked to the neurosurgeon, he explained they were no signs of bleeding. Still, he wanted to do one more scan the following day to be absolutely sure.
To cut a long story short, the second scan showed no signs of bleeding either. We followed up a couple of weeks later and the doctor was happy there were no signs of brain damage. The skull, thank god, had done its job.
The only thing we were left dealing with was own guilt at having failed to protect our boy.
Which raises the question, how should you process it? Should you refuse to acknowledge your mistakes? Tell yourself it’s ok? That these things happen? Or should you tell yourself off? Should you tell yourself that you’re a terrible parent?
This is where I believe the distinction between shame and guilt is important. Why I believe it’s important to ask yourself which of the two you’re actually feeling and why.
In years gone by, such an incident would have thrown me into a spiral. I would have seen what happened as a confirmation that I am bad parent, instead of one who simply made a mistake. I’m pleased to report that didn’t happen. Honestly, aside from our failure in the first instance, I’m proud of how we responded. We did everything right by our son after the fact.
Still, the fact remains, we made a cardinal parenting mistake. One that we need to learn from. However part of learning any lesson is learning to forgive yourself. Shame prevents you from doing that.
It was this point I made to my wife during those difficult few hours while we waited to hear from the neurosurgeon. I told her we need to be honest with ourselves. We need to acknowledge the fact that we made a mistake. However we cannot change what happened. We must also forgive ourselves.
I told her it’s important we don’t allow our guilt to tell us we are bad parents. that we don’t let that guilt turn to shame. While it is one thing to learn from guilt – to use that to make you a better person. It is a whole other thing to let guilt tell you you’re not capable of being a better person.
It’s failing to see that, that really is a crying shame.
(Thanks for reading everyone! I’m sorry I missed you the last couple of weeks. Between this and work, I decided that a blogging break was in order. I’m glad I took one. Anyway, what are your thoughts on shame versus guilt? Do you have any stories of your own? As always, I’d love to hear from you.)
You can find AP2’s personal blog here at: https://clear-air-turbulence.com
76 thoughts on “A Crying Shame”
I’m so sorry that happened! I think all parents/caregivers have been there at least once. I know I have. You’re right, no use holding onto the guilt. I’m working on that myself with my what happened in our lives..but best to move on. Glad your lil one is going to be okay..sounds like you’re “in for it” with him though..
Thank you for your kind words. Guilt is a tricky one to let go of in these situations but often that’s what we need to do to deal with the circumstances as they stand. Much easier said than done of course! I hope you’re well 🙏
So true. I am seeing that now. I’m less angry at my Autistic husband who cheated and is now in prison. I’m realizing that it’s actually the guilt of me leaving him alone because I was caught in my own grief over our loss. I basically threw him to the wolves to be manipulated but it was easier to be angry at him. That ever nagging sense of “I could have prevented this” eats away at a person.
Glad that your kid is in excellent health.
Certain thing do happen in ones life be good or frightening, and that is how Nature functions and nothing under one’s control, though one tries to figure out the reasons.
As LMBiondo said one has to move on and no need to feel guilty.
Every thing is a ‘lesson’…our beloved life teaches us.
We are relieved that everything is fine.
Thank you in-depth analysis of guilt and shame.
Thank you. I think guilt is meant to teach you about how you’ve failed to live up to your own values. Once that lesson is understood, however, holding onto it serves little purpose. You’re right that everything is lesson. We can always grow – always become better. I believe shame prevents us from seeing that. Wishing you well 🙏
Couldn’t agree more my friend
Glad to know that your son is alright. I remember the first time my kid rolled out of her crib. It was devastating. Like the worst sin ever to be committed by a parent. Negligence. But a parent learns quickly and time and experience teaches you to take things in your stride. The more the pain and adversity, the more you are conditioned to keeping the scope of guilt limited to the incident. And at times, guilt doesn’t figure at all. It’s an action that deserves a suitable reaction. And the shame and guilt are just needless drama. Sounds quite blunt. But that’s the way to get by sometimes. But mistakes made again and again overstep the boundary of guilt and redemption. And that’s where shame kicks in. But rectifications are always possible. Maybe not 100% but definitely to a certain degree. I’ve had my fair share of guilt and rare instances of shame. But that’s okay as long as you keep moving and improving. 🙂
Thank you Terveen – as always. I think complacency led to this accident if I’m honest. We were over protective with the first. Perhaps a little too relaxed with the second. I think learning from what happened and, as you say, keeping guilt limited to the incident itself is key. It’s easy for shame to cripple someone mentally – to start looking for evidence that you’re a failure across the board. It can turn into a vicious cycle. I echo your thoughts. We won’t get through life without doubting ourselves and our abilities from time to time. That’s ok. Provided you dust yourself off and stand taller. Wishing you well Terveen. Lovely to hear from you 🙏
I am very sorry that you and your wife had to go through this ordeal. If I were a parent and something like this happened to me I would have been a mess. I am glad that your son is okay and that you are able to practice compassion for yourself. Hope your family is doing well!
I managed to hold it together but honestly, that’s because I had to. The guilt came later on. Practising compassion – yes. Practise being the optimum word. Thank you Matt – The family is happy and healthy. Wishing you well 🙏
I’m glad your child is okay. It’s awful when they’re hurt: it’s so much worse when it’s because you’ve made, or think you’ve made a mistake. The guilt-shame connection is strong and dangerous: I’m glad you were able to stay with mistake over shame, and to talk to your wife about that too. Blessings.
Hi Em. Yes talking about it is very important. Many of us want to hide our mistakes for fear of judgement. I believe it’s far better to get it out in the open and “own” your mistakes. I believe that’s the best way to stop the ugly face of shame taking charge. Blessings to you too 🙏
You explored and explained these delicate topics so thoughtfully. It brought back memories of when my then 18 month old swallowed a coin right under my nose. He had to receive his first anesthetic to get it removed.
I think the lesson is – never underestimate your children’s capacity to hurt themselves! My parents tell me that when I was 2 years old I managed to get a small piece of lego stuck up my nose. They had to take my to hospital to get it removed. Thank you for sharing your story. I appreciate it. 🙏
Thanks for sharing. I’m dealing with thoughts of guilt. Not for what I did, but didn’t do to protect someone I love. It leads to anger too. Haven’t forgiven myself.
Same boat. Our guilt was because of failure to protect our son in this instance. Not anything we did but didn’t do. I was angry at myself as well. I think all we can do is duct ourselves off and make sure we do better next time. I do hope you find it within to forgive yourself. Wishing you well 🙏
Oh, AP2. I’m sorry you’re going through this, but so glad your son is all right!
My husband and I have watched our toddler take a few tumbles—it’s so hard to know what they’re capable of, because they change so fast!—and the guilt you describe inevitably follows. You’re right when you say guilt helps us learn. But shame is a personal Hell that does absolutely no good. We’re all human, and we all err. Let us continue to put our best feet forward, forgive ourselves when we fail, and humbly ask for help when we need it.
Thank you for sharing this, my friend. You are not alone in parenting mishaps. And I have a feeling you’re a wonderful parent! 🕊
Thank you Snap – I appreciate your words. Shame is definitely a personal hell! I have to remind myself what I would tell someone else in the same situation – which is exactly what you have told me. We are all human. The important thing is forgive and move on stronger for it. I have a feeling that you too are a wonderful parent. Wishing you well 🙏
Thank you, my friend! 🦋
What an important post and distinction to think about. I’ve been listening to a lot of shame researcher and professor Brene Brown’s work lately and one of the think she talks about with shame resilience is how healing telling other people is. Shame likes a dark closet where it can fester and bloom into all those fears that undermine our feeling of worth.
So great job telling your story and educating all of us in the process. By the way, I did the same thing with my daughter when she was 6 months old and she too rolled onto the floor. I like to think that all those great leaps of capability that our kids make just goes to show us that we can all make huge progress in our development, sometimes seemingly overnight. Sending gratitude that your son is okay!
Talking about it is so important – very good point! The distinction has certainly helped me process my guilt in a healthier way. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for your kind words. Wishing you well 🙏🙂
Similar things happened with both of my children….and in fact, I know something similar happened to me when I was a baby. No such thing as perfect parenting. Thanks for sharing this story and normalizing that accidents happen.
I’ve no doubt it’s more common than I realise. You’re right there is no such thing as perfect parenting. The important thing is to learn from it, not dwell on it. Thank for your comment 🙂🙏
Oh I empathise with you AP2… Happened with both my girls and think I felt worse than they did. Guilt is awful, but shows we care so much and these things do happen! We learn, accept and parenting is a continuous learning experience. Be kind to yourself AP2 ❤
That’s all we can do when these things happen. Learn and then learn to let go. I will be kind to myself. Thank you so much Bernie 🙂🙏
We put our daughter to sleep on the floor with pillows on each side to make sure she didn’t roll anywhere. She was only a couple months old. Then we stepped away for a couple minutes to an adjacent room to work on something.
The next thing we know our dog comes rushing up to us. She was literally shouting “Timmy’s in the well!” or something. Went back to check immediately. Somehow she had rolled OVER the pillow, across the floor and banged her head on the corner of the fireplace. Great big bruise. Wasn’t even crying, just normal gurgling and giggling. We’d have heard THAT instantly. She came out of it fine. From then on it was only the crib if she wasn’t closely attended.
Kids do things all the time they aren’t supposed to be able to do. Live and learn.
You’re right – Kids will find a way to hurt themselves no matter how hard you try to protect them. All we can do is pick up pieces and try better next time. Thank you Fred for sharing your story. 🙏
The guilt/shame thing is a normal reaction of parenthood. Once many years ago, before car seats and seat belts two cars of friends with kids headed to the beach. We stopped at a store to get cold drinks and about a half hour down the road I suddenly said, “Where’s Chris?” We thought he got in the other car. We pulled over to make sure. He was not in their car! So we made a fast trip back to the store and he was in the toy section, happily playing. We were lucky this time. You can bet we counted everyone off from then on. I am happy that you also were lucky, but don’t beat yourself up. You are human.
We are all human. Mistakes are bound to happen. The important thing is to learn from them instead of allowing them to define us in a negative light. Thank you for sharing your story and letting me know I’m not alone. Wishing you well 🙏
Whew, dodged a bad one there, AP! Babies are better than TV, and sometimes worse than the worst nights in jail (don’t ask). Confined with remorse and self-punishment, occasionally deserved, but usually just a random act of baby voyaging that got you there. The brain thing, scary!! My Ma came back from the hospital yesterday after 10 weeks!! of being in the hospital for brain bleeding after a fall, and 4 of those were in ICU, so I do get the terror of hearing that prognosis. Ma’s a tough old bat though, and your boy shows remarkable resilience under duress; very auspicious. May that good luck follow him his whole life. No guilt, no shame.
Yes – It certainly could have been much worse! For that, we are extremely grateful. I’m sorry to hear about your Ma – but glad she pulled through. Clearly a very resilient lady! I’ve been reading up about skull fractures in infants and apparently they are far more common than many realise. It’s entirely possible another doctor would have sent us home with no further investigation. We would have been none the wiser! Sometimes ignorance definitely is bliss! Thank you for sharing your thoughts/kind words. I wish you and your ma all the best 🙏
I am a parent, and my daughter also was performing the new tricks at one point that have resulted in… ahm…. No, it did not feel good that she had fallen while under supervision….. However, guilt concept has been removed from my system about 7 year before she was born….
I often had the feeling you and I have met before, so I am compelled to say something I would (and often do ) say to a friend: what is the purpose of guilt/ shame? Why do these exist? How does a feeling of guilt/ shame serve you and your spouse and your child?
The point is: sh*t happens and just like anything that has already happened there are two choices: learn and move on OR keep soaking in it. First choice means there is future before you, the second one means there is future behind you. And I know for a fact that your child knows only the second choice.
Have a great day 🙂
You’re right. I believe the expression is, “Don’t cry over spilt milk.” Wise words indeed. Thank you for taking the time to leave your thoughts. Wishing you a great day too 🙂🙏
I’m so sorry about what you and your family went through. Though babies are tougher than we think we are the ones with a faint heart. Loads of strength to you!
Yes he was largely unaffected by the experience! It’s only mum and dad who were left scarred 😂. Thank you for your kind words. Wishing you well 🙏
Excellent post! Thank you for sharing your insight! Glad your baby is doing well! Best Wishes! Leigh
Thank you Leigh. Baby is very well now yes. Best wishes to you too! 🙏
Wow it’s nice reading from your blog.
And sorry for what happened to your child.
Parenting isn’t easy, mistakes are bound to happen but I’m glad you never let what happened make you guys feel incompetent.
Thank you Daniel. We at least try to see it for what it is – a learning experience. Shame can make it difficult to move on. Wishing you well 🙏
A pure and simple accident. I am happy that you and your wife forgave yourselves (and hopefully each other). Luckily, children are so resilient! XO
They certainly are! Thank you Lisa – I appreciate your kind words. All has been forgiven. Wishing you well 🙏
Glad your kid is okay. I loooove how you explained the concept. Learning to forgive yourself is certainly very important in order to lead a normal life
Thank you for your kind words. Yes forgiving ourselves is so important, yet difficult for many of us in practise. Wishing you well 🙏
I think shame feels… shameful because of how people perceive it. Shame is often viewed very negatively and make us seen as if what we have done is unholy, unappealing, or intolerable, hence why we tend to go extra miles preventing these shameful deeds from happening… and crying when we can’t stop it. But we’re bound to do those deeds inadvertently at some point in life, aren’t we? Because people are imperfect, and yet we often refuse to see that…
I was wondering where you’d gone! Lol. I missed your delightful posts, but I think your break was perfectly justified! I recently started learning about this distinction, after an unfortunate situation a few months ago, with some friends I’ve parted ways with now. Anyway, at first it was really hard to deal with, when a crippling shame had me in crying frenzies almost daily, and even had me thinking I could never face these people again. But once I learned about this distinction, it has really helped me to move forward. Reading more about it is always helpful, and a good reminder for myself to keep working on it, to keep forgiving myself, and keep accepting my faults and learning from them. I’m sorry the incident with your boy happened to you and your wife, how traumatic it must have been! It sounds like you’re on the right track, but remember to be kind to yourselves. Mistakes happen, and dwelling on them doesn’t make them go away. Only accepting them, and forgiving yourself will set you free again. Welcome back!
Oh, and I’m glad your son is OK, of course!!
Thank you Ash Jones. I’m flattered that someone was actually wondering where I’d gone 😂. The distinction is so important for learning to forgive ourselves. I’m pleased to hear it has helped you do that too. Thank you for you kind words and comments. Wishing you the very best. 🙏
Your absolutely right.
I am glad your son is okay. It’s a feeling the parents felt when something happens to their child maybe it’s a guilt, sadness or even shame as you mentioned in your blog but how we deal with it is important accepting your mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person but a good human being in your own eyes. Blessing.
Thank you for your kind words – you summed it up well. Blessings to you too 🙏
I’m reading this a week late, but glad to hear that you all are well after that incident. Love how you both responded. Sharing your shame vs. guilt (or better, guilt vs. shame) post is also a lesson for those who have a hard time accepting the mistake and feeling condemnation instead. I used to beat myself hard a lot whenever I made a mistake (striving to be perfect), but thank goodness I don’t anymore. 🙏🏾🤞🏾
Sometimes I still beat myself up way too much. I’m trying to learn to laugh at myself more nowadays – not take myself so seriously. I find that helps separate the shame from the guilt. Thank you for your kind words. Wishing you well 🙏
Laughing at oneself is therapeutic (or cathartic). All the well wishes to you, too. ✌🏾
Great post. Thanks for sharing.
My pleasure – thank you taking the time to read and comment. 🙏
Thanks for sharing.
Very interesting read! Sorry to hear about your son (and glad he’s okay!) but the story really did help paint the picture.
Thank you. I appreciate your comments 🙏
Glad to hear your son is well. We had a similar situation. My husband was always nervous to become a father, having had a crappy birth dad (his step dad – who we call dad – was exemplary). Anyway, I was at work one evening and our daughter had just begun crawling, hubby nipped in to the next room to grab her pjs, leaving her on her play mat (I’d already set the Pj’s out so it was a quick trip to grab them) however, in that moment, our daughter had crawled across the room, and grabbed hold of the pipe under the radiator which was very hot, and burnt her hand, and had rolled back over to her mat, so upon his return and hearing her cry, hubby wasn’t aware of what had happened. He could just see that she was crying, at this point I’ll add that she was going through a stage of screaming bloody murder at everything, so these cries didn’t seem out of the ordinary!
It wasn’t until the next morning that we found her hand full of blisters and put two and two together on what had happened. Of course, immediate hospital visits ensued (she’s absolutely fine, this was a few years ago, there’s no scarring!!). Hubby however, hasn’t forgiven himself. At the time called himself a bad father, he should have known, how could he have let her cry like that?, how did he not know she was in pain?, he should have known…these were his thoughts. It didn’t matter how much I told him he couldn’t have known, and it wasn’t his fault, he still to this day bears guilt, and I believe shame, over the incident. I think it’s actually a good portion of the reason he doesn’t want to have any more children. She was so young at the time I don’t think it is something she will remember, she has never mentioned it. But I do know it is something he will not even speak about, he still feels so bad about it. I certainly do not blame him, or shame him over it and have done my best to reassure him of how much of a wonderful father he is (and he really is outstanding – hes the father I wish I had growing up!).
All this to say our daughter clearly has a favourite parent, and he is her absolute hero, I hope he finds solace in that!
It sounds to me like an honest mistake. We all take our eyes off them for a second every now and then – that’s when it happens! No matter how hard we try, kids will find a way to hurt themselves. All we can do is live and learn. Part of learning is learning to forgive ourselves as well. I sincerely hope he does. Thank you for sharing your story plus your kind comments. Wishing you and your family the very best. 🙏
Learning to forgive myself has been a lifelong process, and I think I’m closer to finding a peaceful way to do it, but sometimes that inability to do so creeps back in. Usually it starts with something small like missing a meal, or going to sleep to late, or making a mistake during a game of ultimate. Then like you a spiral starts where my mind starts to think of all the larger mistakes that I’ve made in the past. As you so rightly say we can’t change what has happened, no matter how much we want to, but we can learn from it. The best thing is to acknowledge, remind ourselves we are not a bad person from one error in judgement or lapse in concentration, and that we can learn from it.
As always, thank you for sharing my friend, the story and the wisdom. 🧡
Thanks Hamsih. I know what shame does to a man only too well. Sleeping in late is a big trigger for me. Often that can ruin my day – but nowadays I’m much better. If I oversleep I just hit reset – my day starts a little later but everything still gets done. The most important stuff anyway. Often we have to make these mistakes repeatedly before we really learn from them. Once we do, we move on. Dropping judgement/self acceptnace is key. Thanks Hamish – I really appreaceit your continued support. Hope all is well in New Zealand 🙏
Totally agree with your take on guilt. As for shame, my take on that adds a bit to yours. I consider it to be a feeling you get when someone says you should be ashamed of yourself. In other words it is their opinion that you have done something wrong. It is however your free will choice to agree or disagree with them. Those with low self- esteem are more likely to take it personally and agree and feel unworthy and unforgivable. Interested to know what you think.