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Shame vs Guilt: Understanding the Difference

We often throw around the words guilt and shame as if they're the same thing. Both refer to feeling bad about something we've done, but they actually mean different things. Understanding this difference is important, for it affects how we see ourselves, others, and the world around us.


Man holding his head in shame
Shame vs Guilt

Shame vs Guilt


In the realm of psychology, guilt is recognised as an emotional state triggered when we sense we've fallen short of our own or others' moral standards. Much like shame, guilt brings about reflections on our perceived failure and stirs up distressing emotions such as sadness, anger, or anxiety. It can even manifest in physical reactions like an upset stomach, akin to shame. When addressed effectively, some degree of guilt can be constructive.


In contrast, shame is described as an intensely painful feeling or experience rooted in the belief that we are inherently flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.


The key difference between shame and guilt lies in their impact on self-perception. Guilt suggests that a person is fundamentally good but has engaged in a misstep: "I did something bad."


On the other hand, shame goes deeper, labeling a person as inherently bad: "I am a bad person." Shame is particularly detrimental when left unresolved, eroding self-esteem over time.


Guilt = I did bad

Shame = I am bad


Let's imagine a situation where you forget an important deadline at work. If you feel guilt, you might acknowledge the mistake and think, "I messed up; I should improve my time management and prioritise tasks better." In this case, guilt prompts reflection on the specific action and a commitment to change behaviour.


On the other hand, if shame creeps in, the internal dialogue may take a more damaging turn. Thoughts like, "I am a total failure at my job and a worthless person; maybe I'm not cut out for this career at all," start to dominate. Unlike guilt, which centers on the specific mistake, shame attacks your core identity, making you question your worth and capabilities.


This example illustrates the essential difference between guilt and shame, where guilt focuses on actions and an opportunity for improvement, while shame inflicts harm on one's sense of self.


Shame can also be imposed externally, such as when someone at work berates you for missing the deadline, as in the example above.


Understanding this difference is crucial. Guilt can be a constructive force, prompting identification and correction of problematic behaviours. In contrast, shame focuses on the person rather than the behaviour, proving detrimental to self-esteem. While everyone experiences guilt and shame to varying degrees, acquiring effective tools can help manage both emotions.


Shame, Guilt, and Behaviour


It's inevitable that everyone experiences emotions like anger at some stage. How we handle our anger is influenced, in part, by whether we lean more towards guilt or shame. Those inclined towards guilt are adept at channelling their guilt into constructive actions, enabling them to bring about positive changes or solve problems when confronted with anger. In contrast, people predisposed to shame often utilise their shame-fuelled anger in detrimental ways, either self-sabotaging or expressing aggression towards others.


Our Actions and Possessions


Unlike shame, guilt is most commonly associated with actions and possessions. Guilt surfaces when we've caused harm to someone or when we're not proud of our behaviour. It's an acknowledgment that our actions can negatively impact others, either physically or emotionally, and in our empathy, we experience guilt, pushing us to set things right. As we grow older, guilt may also emerge from having something that others lack. As long as our emotional reactions remain within a reasonable range, this form of guilt is considered healthy, serving as a catalyst to address imbalances.


Shame, on the other hand, maintains a limited connection to our actions. Although it may originate from doing something perceived as wrong by ourselves or others, the underlying emotion transcends the specific actions. It delves into our core identity. Even if we recognise a mistake, our focus shifts from the actions themselves to what we believe they signify – a conviction that we are fundamentally bad, flawed, foolish, inferior, or selfish, for example. Consequently, this introspective preoccupation often leads to inaction.


Avoiding a Negative Self-Image


If you tend to experience guilt, you're likely already attuned to the potential negative repercussions of wrongdoing. Anticipating the possibility of feeling remorse can prompt you to second-guess your actions, encouraging decisions that align with your values and are acceptable even if brought to light.


At times, your actions might lead to a level of guilt that motivates you to seek resolution. It's helpful to acknowledge mistakes and recognise them as isolated incidents. For instance, if you accidentally overlook a commitment to a friend and miss an important event, this oversight doesn't automatically mean you are a fundamentally flawed person. It represents a particular lapse in keeping with your personal or societal standards, rather than serving as a comprehensive judgment of your character.


When guilt takes precedence over shame, you view occasional missteps as separate from your overall identity. You maintain the understanding that you're fundamentally a good person who can rectify mistakes. Essentially, making errors is a universal aspect of the human experience, and it's healthy to embrace this reality. While intense guilt can potentially evolve into shame, managing guilt in a constructive manner, rather than letting it escalate, can yield powerful benefits.


The Negative Effects of Shame


In the past, some parents deliberately used shame as a tool to discourage specific behaviours in their children. However, this approach has largely been discarded as our understanding has evolved, recognising the detrimental effects of shaming, not only on children but also on people in general.


Shame can prove more distressing than guilt, as it poses a challenge for some people in disentangling their actions from their core identity.


Shame Erodes Self-Worth


If you lean towards shame, there's a tendency to internalise every negative action as a reflection of your core identity. Regardless of the magnitude of a mistake, it leaves you feeling diminished as a person. This pattern tends to be cumulative; the more shame experienced, the deeper the impact on your self-perception. Instead of attributing an error to a specific action with, "I did something wrong," you generalise to, "I'm a bad person." This rapid shift contributes to a decline in self-esteem, influencing various aspects of your life.


Shame Creates Feelings of Despair


It's generally easier to change your actions than it is to transform your entire identity. For those inclined toward shame, life may appear bleak when the prospect of change feels insurmountable. This sense of powerlessness can lead to a surrender in trying to uphold a positive self-image. In response, a person might withdraw from social connections to conceal their shame, or, in more severe cases, experience depression or contemplate suicide.


Nevertheless, there is room for hope in dealing with guilt and shame. People successfully modify their behaviour and enhance their self-esteem, overcoming the burdens of shame and guilt. Although addressing guilt and shame may pose challenges, it is an achievable endeavour.


Navigating Shame When It Seems Impossible to Change


Coping with shame can be a formidable task, yet experiencing this emotion doesn't imply an inherent moral deficiency or inferiority. With appropriate support, it's possible to acquire the skills needed to overcome both guilt and shame.


Conclusion


While the difference between shame and guilt may appear subtle, it holds significant importance in enhancing emotional management. Acknowledging this distinction empowers you to navigate your feelings more effectively. Everyone makes mistakes, but these need not detrimentally impact your self-esteem. Rather, you can glean valuable lessons from moments of shame, fostering personal growth without succumbing to its negative effects.



 


Sally Edwards

Fully qualified counsellor, psychotherapist and trauma therapist based in Orpington, Kent

Face-to-face in person or online counselling

My specialism is on the impacts of trauma, from events such as childhood neglect, childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape, domestic and emotional abuse, accidents, violence, serious illness, and financial trauma (redundancy and bankruptcy). But I work with clients with many other life challenges and emotional difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, OCD behaviours, PTSD, self-harm, and eating issues.

I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, Biggin Hill, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley


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