Guilt Vs. Shame: What’s The Difference And Why Does It Matter?
Updated December 14, 2018
Reviewer Patricia Corlew , LMFT, LPC,
Guilt and shame are two words we use almost interchangeably. They're both used to describe a reaction to something bad about ourselves. The two words do not mean the same thing. This difference matters and has a significant impact on how we view ourselves, each other, and the world.
Guilt Versus Shame Definitions
Let's start with definitions. Guilt and shame are similar, but their precise meanings can begin to show where the dissimilarities begin.
In psychology, guilt is defined as an emotional state that comes when we feel we have failed to live up to our own or others morals or standards. Guilt includes both thoughts of how we have failed and distressing emotions like sadness, anger, or anxiety. It can even cause physical reactions, such as an upset stomach. Some guilt can be healthy if you resolve it appropriately.
Shame is an intense feeling about the self that comes from failing to live up to your own or others' standards. The main difference is that with shame, you see yourself as a bad person rather than a good person who has done something bad. Shame is unhealthy, especially if it continues without being resolved. It only leads to further loss of self-esteem if you don't resolve it as quickly as possible.
Sources of Guilt and Shame
What causes us to feel guilty or ashamed? Guilt develops naturally as we learn to interact with our world. Shame can come when a parent or other caregiver wrongly place the blame for our incorrect actions on who we are rather than what we've done.
Stages of Guilt Development
Most of us get our first feelings of guilt in early childhood. As we begin to understand that we are separate from other people, we may feel guilty if we physically hurt them. Later in childhood, we realize we can hurt others emotionally, too. During adolescence and adulthood, we develop the ability to see beyond simple, direct reasons for guilt and may begin to understand guilt as being related to larger problems like world hunger or oppression.
Actions and Possessions
Guilt is associated most often with actions and possessions. We feel guilty when we've caused harm to someone else or have done something of which we are not proud. As we mature, we might feel guilty because we have something that others don't have. We recognize that what we do or what we have makes others feel physically or emotionally bad, and in our compassion, we want to make it right. This is the healthy side of guilt.
Shame is only associated with our actions in a very limited way. Yes, we feel shame because we've done something we or others think is wrong. On a deeper level, the feeling isn't about the action at all. It's about who we are as a person. We may have done a wrong thing, but what we dwell on is what a bad, stupid, inferior, or selfish person we are. With shame, the bad acting isn't the real problem to us; instead, we see the wrong action as evidence that we aren't the person we should be.
Are You Prone to Shame or Guilt?
Guilt-prone people tend to be able understand and own what they have done. Shame-prone people tend to blame themselves or others when they do something that is considered wrong.
Shame, Guilt, and Anger
Everyone feels anger, at least occasionally. What we do with our anger depends partly on whether we're prone to shame or guilt. People who tend to feel guilty are better at using those guilt feelings in constructive ways, to make changes or solve problems. Shame-prone people, on the other hand, tend to use their anger in destructive ways, tearing themselves down or being aggressive towards others.
Shame vs. Guilt Scales
The Guilt and Shame Proneness scale is a test that psychologists devised to use in experimental studies. The GASP assesses differences in the way you respond to doing something wrong. Both your feelings and your behaviors that might repair the situation are considered. It also assesses your shame feelings and negative behaviors.
Because the GASP can show if you're prone to healthy guilt or unhealthy shame, its authors suggest it could be used to assess someone's proneness to corruption and to behave unethically.
The Benefits of Moderate Guilt
Overwhelming feelings of guilt could quickly turn into shame. However, if you deal with your guilt appropriately, it can have some powerful benefits.
Increases Ethical Behavior
If you're guilt-prone, you're already aware that doing something wrong might have negative consequences. You know you might feel bad about what you're about to do. So, you're likely to make a different decision that you can live with both now and if anyone finds out about your behavior.
A Negative Self-Evaluation Isn't Necessary
You can feel guilty enough to want to make amends without considering yourself a morally bad or inferior person. You recognize that what you do isn't quite the same as who you are. You might have accepted too much change from a cashier, but that doesn't mean you're necessarily a bad person. It just means that you didn't do what was morally right at one given moment. When you feel guilty rather than ashamed, you see that error as separate from who you are. You're still a good person, and you can still make amends.
The Harm of Shame
In decades past, many parents intentionally shamed their children. This practice has been mostly abandoned as we've come to understand that shaming has a negative impact on young them. Here are some of the downsides of shame.
When you're prone to shame, you tend to think that every negative thing you do reflects who you are. The more shame you engage in, the worse you feel about yourself. Instead of saying, "I did a wrong thing," you say, "I'm a bad person."
Doesn't Promote Ethical Behavior
Moreover, shame doesn't make you a better person. Far from it! Instead, people who cling to shame are more likely to do the thing anyway and then hide it from others. They blame their inner self for the bad behavior, but they might also blame others. It's very difficult to adopt a problem-solving attitude when you're focused on hiding what you've done and mitigating the blame.
Creates a Sense of Hopelessness
Changing what you do relatively easy; changing who you are is difficult. So, if you're prone to shame and attributing bad behavior to who you are, life can seem hopeless. You may give up on trying to be a good person; you may isolate from others to hide your shame; or you may even become depressed or suicidal.
Dealing Appropriately with Guilt
While guilt is easier to deal with than shame, it still requires a lot of thought and effort. These are some of the tasks you have in front of you if you're trying to get beyond your guilt.
Distinguish Between Action and Self
The first step in dealing with guilt is to make a clear distinction between what you did and who you are. If you feel guilty, you're likely to experience a distressing feeling of inner conflict. That's okay. In fact, it's the key to making amends and choosing differently in the future.
If you've seen that your behavior was wrong or inappropriate, you need to accept responsibility for what you've done. Rather than attempting to hide it or push the blame onto someone else, you need to be very clear that you're responsible for your actions.
Sometimes, making amends is easy. You simply apologize and make reparations. In the case of getting too much change from the cashier, you could just say, "I'm sorry. Let me give you the extra change back."
Sometimes, though, making amends isn't as easy. You might not be able to undo the harm you caused. However, you won't be able to put the experience completely in the past until you right the wrong in some way. Often, people who feel guilty about something they can't go back and repair find other ways to benefit others. For example, someone who ignored a homeless person who was obviously in need might not be able to go back and find that person again. They may choose to volunteer at a soup kitchen to do what they can for others
Take a Problem-Solving Approach
Instead of beating yourself up or getting angry with others, it's best to take a problem-solving approach. So, you've done something you consider wrong. What can you do to make things right? If you can't make them right with that person, is there something else you can do to better the overall situation for others like that person. Question yourself and come up with answers; then, follow through with positive action.
Make Better Choices
Sometimes, guilt can have a funny way of changing your entire perspective. When you do something that you can't accept as a part of who you are, you may start on a journey to become your best self. With a new path come new challenges, often ones you've never faced before.
It helps to have a guide who can help you navigate these new waters so that you can start making the choices you can embrace as a positive part of your inner self. A spiritual advisor, a counselor, or even a wise friend or family member may be able to help you as you go along.
What to Do When You Can't Get Past Your Shame
Shame can be a negative emotion. Yet, feeling shame doesn't mean you're a morally deficient or otherwise inferior person. It's a problem you can learn how to solve and overcome. If you'd like to learn healthier ways of responding to your bad behavior, you can do it with the right help. What's more, you can put the shame of past transgressions behind you.
If shame and guilt have come to rule your inner world, you may decide you need help learning positive ways of dealing with these emotions. Please know that you may talk with a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com for private, affordable online therapy that happens when and where you choose. You can learn to handle negative feelings without letting go of your commitment to right action. It may not always be easy, but it will always be more than worthwhile!