Expat women’s guide to guilt, shame, and embarrassment — and how these three emotions create a very different impact

by Margarita

As women we are pretty much used to feeling guilty.

As expat women we are used to watching our guilt grow in direct proportion to the proliferation of experiences of things going wrong, of failing at something, or of feeling sorry for ourselves. If there were a tournament on guilt, expat women would probably win it, hands down.

And while this isn’t something to be proud of, it is definitely something to learn from. Having so much experience with feeling guilty can translate into developing resilience for feeling guilty. And since guilt can easily poison your life, why not work on recognizing it, pinning it down, and eliminating it from your life?

Ready? Set? Go?

Not so fast.

First I wanted to draw a very significant distinction between guilt and another emotion that many confuse with guilt – shame. Brené Brown’s groundbreaking work on shame (see her TED video here) identifies shame as a state of mind that is even more poisonous than guilt. While guilt makes us feel bad for what we did, shame makes us feel bad for who we are.

For instance:

  • Guilt: I feel bad because I am not earning money.
  • Shame: I am worthless because I am not earning money.
  • Guilt: I feel guilty for going out while leaving children with a nanny.
  • Shame: I am a bad parent for going out while leaving children with a nanny.
  • Guilt: I feel bad because I am having trouble making friends.
  • Shame: I am flawed because I am having trouble making friends.

Get the difference? Shame attacks us at our core, it attacks the inside of who we are, it pins us down as unworthy, useless, bad, and damaged.

Brené Brown’s definition of shame is: Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame leaves women feeling trapped, powerless and isolated.”

The last sentence in this definition is the key when it comes to distinguishing between shame and guilt (and embarrassment).

Being embarrassed and feeling guilty is often the result of doing something wrong and, as a result, this “doing” may inspire us to change our ways, make amends, grow, and learn.

Feeling shame has a different effect. It isolates us, makes us feel trapped and powerless. It can literally destroy us… if we let it.

So the next time you feel a familiar pang of guilt coming on, look closely.

  • Is it guilt or is it shame? Is it about your “doing” or about your “being”?
  • How culturally-determined is your shame? In other words, how did the expectations of a culture in which you grew up contributed to you feeling shameful? What’s your shame’s trigger?
  • What can you do about this trigger?

We will be doing a lot of work around guilt and shame in our Expat Women Academy program that starts on October 1, 2012. It’s a one of a kind program that provides expat women with strategies to overcome expatriate challenges.

There are three different ways of joining the program — and all of them provide a money-back-guarantee. So join us for the Expat Women Academy and kiss those feelings of guilt or shame good-bye!

5 responses to “Expat women’s guide to guilt, shame, and embarrassment — and how these three emotions create a very different impact

  1. What is an Expat woman and is she always a married woman with kids? Is she always just tagging along with her spouse, packing and unpacking, always adjusting, struggling with friendships, clinging to her past pining for the ‘comfort’ and the ‘known’?

    • Hi Sandi,

      I think expat women come in different “shapes” and “colors” so I would not say that they are “always just tagging along with her spouse, packing and unpacking, always adjusting, struggling with friendships, clinging to her past pining for the ‘comfort’ and the ‘known’”. I am curious what made you assume that from my post?

      Feelings of shame and guilt are not limited to the expat women in your description — single women, women working for an employer, student women and many other “kinds” of expat women go through guilt and shame. My goal was to differentiate between the two emotions — not to pigeonhole the women in my audience.


      • Charlie Bailey

        I feel that your article’s advice is very good, and your engagement with the issues of guilt vs shame is thought provoking, however, I’m also convinced that your distinction at the beginning is very limiting.

        “As women we are pretty much used to feeling guilty” – how is this more than a crude generalisation? I understand that personal experience and anecdotal evidence may lead you to believe this, but you assert this at the outset and then don’t really engage with it, but rather strategies to deal with it as if it were a self-evident truth.

        To my mind, guilt and shame are equally damaging in men as women. Whilst I appreciate your blog posts are usually about women’s experiences, I feel that such a universal topic should be addressed in a non-gendered way.

        Also I think Sandi’s question is useful as your examples of reasons to feel guilt/shame are very much traditionally anxieties of non-professional homemakers and the spouses of working professionals, which prompted similarly dismissive thoughts as I read, before I got to grips with your main points, which are important.

        Thanks for the engaging dissection of these two damaging emotions, and I hope you don’t mind a bit of friendly critique!

      • Hi Charlie,

        I appreciate your thoughts and thank you for engaging in the discussion. I don’t deny that there may be some crude generalizations in my article, as you pointed out, however, I didn’t set out to present an objective study on how many women feel guilty vs how many don’t. It was not the point of the article and, as an author with an opinion — not a journalist — I am free to focus on whatever I choose to focus on, even if that focus rests upon anecdotal evidence. The guilt among women is not self-evident truth but it’s ONE of the truths that are out there. Just like we cannot say ALL women feel guilty, we cannot say NO ONE feels guilty. There are and will always be people struggling with guilt and so I choose to address that particular truth without going into much discussion of percentages of how many are and how many are not feeling guilty.

        I am sure men experience guilt and I am not denying it. But I am a woman and I wrote this article for women. Again, this is not a study but a personal essay — an essay that I was writing based on personal experiences with expat women and as an expat woman. Same goes for the examples because women who gave up work, career, etc to accompany their spouses are the women I work with — and the majority of women expats at this point in time. It was not my place to write about other expat women and again, the point was not in WHO those women were but in separating shame from guilt.

        When I write my posts, they are my personal essays. They are posts that come out of experience, thinking, and creating connections. I choose the connections I want to create and the lessons I want to highlight. It may not be to everyone’s taste and it’s certainly not at all scientific. I don’t claim any scientific evidence nor do I ever speak in absolute terms. There will always be different experiences and I don’t write for everyone.

        Hope this makes sense and thanks again!

  2. I think you’ve hit on a very important distinction, Margarita, with Brene Brown’s definition of shame vs. guilt. This has powerful implications for people, especially women as many cultures reaffirm our responsibility for feeling guilt, and also expats grappling with the challenges of living cross-culturally. It’s funny because as you were posting this article on guilt, shame and embarrassment, i was writing a post about the personal repercussions of actions driving these emotions (If Ever a Need for Resilience http://wp.me/p1iIk2-ll ). You’re right that shame is more insidious, but I tend to think guilt is more widespread. Thanks fas always or getting me thinking…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s