What is the difference between shame and guilt?
January 2012: What is the difference between shame and guilt? How can I know if I experience too much shame and/or guilt? If I do, what I can I do about it?
It can be easy to confuse a feeling of shame with guilt and vice versa because they both make us feel bad. However, where one makes us feel bad about our behavior (i.e. guilt), the other one makes us feel bad about ourselves (i.e. shame). Both shame and guilt have adaptive qualities, but like any unpleasant emotion, shame and guilt can cause tremendous internal suffering if they dominate our inner experience.
Shame is a feeling that is connected to our sense of worth where guilt is connected to our values and behavior. When we feel shame, we want to hide. Our attention is focused internally, our thoughts are self-critical and self-blaming, we feel attacked and/or vulnerable, and we feel propelled to defend ourselves. As a result, shame has a direct negative impact on our self-esteem and self-worth. It also interferes with our sense of connection with others.
When we feel guilt, on the other hand, we are motivated to make amends or apologize. We feel bad about what we did (or did not do), but we do not feel bad about who we are as a person. Guilt shifts our focus externally (i.e. toward the person or persons we have hurt), motivates us to acknowledge the harm we have caused and to repair this harm. Guilt is connected to our values and morals, and holds us accountable to these values and morals. We feel relief from guilt when amends has been made. Another way of viewing the experience of shame versus guilt is that shame is about self-critical blaming (which is destructive) and guilt is about taking responsibility.
It is a fine distinction between shame and guilt, and it is easy to see why shame and guilt can be experienced simultaneously, which can also make it difficult for us to know what we are feeling. This is especially so if we experience excessive shame because excessive shame can make us prone to experience excessive guilt.
The action tendency of shame and guilt are different, and when experienced simultaneously can become confusing. However, it is possible to become aware of the distinction, understand the reason or reasons why one is feeling shame and/or guilt, and begin the process of using these emotions to clarify one’s boundaries, values and beliefs. Becoming aware of our feelings of shame and/or guilt, and working with these feelings instead of trying to avoid them can keep them from becoming destructive.
Although the feelings of shame and guilt have adaptive qualities, both can cause much suffering if experienced excessively. When this occurs, we are more prone to a variety of psychological and emotional problems including substance abuse, eating disorders, interpersonal violence, depression and anxiety, and workaholism. People who experience excessive shame are likely to experience some of the following:
1. Fear of vulnerability and of being oneself
2. Fear of intimacy and a tendency to avoid commitment in relationship
3. Perpetual thoughts of being worthless and unlovable, and believing that no matter what one does, it will not make a difference
4. Feelings of defensiveness when given even minor negative feedback (making a mistake can be devastating because it is difficult to separate the mistake from who one is as a person. That is, one does not make a mistake, one is a mistake)
5. Tendency to blame others
6. Debilitating guilt and, as result, one is constantly apologizing (the guilt and apologizing is because excessive shame is related to the destruction of boundaries. In turn, the destruction of these boundaries makes it difficult for us to know what is our responsibility and what is not. When we experience excessive shame, we assume too much responsibility for the behavior and/or feelings of those around us)
7. Feelings of being an outsider
8. Projection of one’s beliefs about oneself onto others. This means that you assume another person has the same negative feelings and thoughts about you as you do about yourself.
9. Feelings of defectiveness
10. Feeling controlled from the outside and from the inside in the form of one’s internal self-critic
These are just some of the experiences excessive shame can cause. That being said, what can we do if we feel debilitating shame and guilt?
If you believe you are experiencing excessive shame and guilt, it is important to name it, experience it and inspect it. Shame does not want to be exposed. That is, shame tells us that, “no one must know or find out”. As a result, an important step to overcoming shame is exposing it by sharing what we feel ashamed about with someone we trust. Someone who we believe will not judge us or blame us, but will be supportive and understanding.
Since excessive shame is maintained by an internal self-critical voice that is often the result of past maltreatment or learning, it is often helpful to identify the content of this internal self-critic so this content can be examined and challenged. Connecting this internal self-critic to past maltreatment or learning can help one to understand why one has developed such a harsh inner self-critic and begin to develop compassion towards oneself.
Finally, naming, experiencing and inspecting the feelings that accompany the content of the inner self-critic can increase our connection to ourselves. Feelings are informative and naming, experiencing and inspecting our primary feelings is really just a way of honoring and connecting with oneself. Instead of expending mental energy avoiding or fighting against our unpleasant thoughts and feelings, identifying and being with these feelings can ultimately free us to be more ourselves.
Here is an exercise to help become more consciously aware of the feeling of shame and the thoughts that accompany this feeling. This exercise is from Emotion-Focused Therapy (Leslie Greenberg):
Think of a situation when you felt worthless or deeply ashamed.
What happened that led you to feel this way? Identify the feeling
in your body. Now, shift your attention to the negative voice in your
head. What do you believe about yourself? What do you believe
others think and feel about you? Write this down. Identify what
was done to you that made you feel this way. Now, find a part of
yourself to fight back against the shaming. Imagine yourself back
in the situation. If the situation was when you were a child, imagine
the situation with you as an adult standing up for your child self and
have your adult self provide your child self with what you needed in
that situation (e.g. support, protection or comfort).
To reiterate, shame and guilt are feelings that are unpleasant, but they also keep our behavior in check. However, when shame and guilt become excessive, they then become destructive. Excessive shame and guilt adversely affects our self-esteem, our self-confidence, our self-worth, and our relationships with others. Excessive shame and guilt also adversely affects our spirituality. There are various ways to address excessive shame and guilt. Some books that directly deal with shame and/or guilt are:
1) Shame & Guilt: Masters of Disguise by Jane Middleton-Moz
2) Healing the Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw
I also recommend the books:
1) Reinventing Your Life by Jeffery E. Young and Janet S. Klosko (the defectiveness schema is the result of excessive shame)
2) Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart by Tara Bennett-Goleman
Disclaimer: Please note that this blog is only an introduction to the feelings of shame and guilt. The information presented here is not my own. I have drawn upon a variety of resources. If you are seeing a health care professional and something within this blog resonates with you, please discuss this with her or him. If you believe you could benefit from professional support, there are many health care providers that could assist you. If you are in a state of crisis, please contact your nearest crisis center or go to the emergency room of your nearest hospital.