Shame and guilt are two words that many people use interchangeably because they both describe a negative, self-conscious emotion. Both can have a significant impact on how we view ourselves, each other, and the world. However, they have subtle but crucial differences in meaning and implication. The main difference: whether those negative feelings are aimed at an action or at oneself.
Everyone experiences guilt and shame, some more frequently than others. But you can learn to process both emotions in a healthy way with the right tools. This article compares and contrasts shame and guilt and provides the best ways to address these emotions.
Shame Vs Guilt
Guilt tends to provoke thoughts of how we have failed alongside distressing emotions like sadness or anxiety. However, if resolved appropriately, guilt can lead to positive outcomes like personal growth and behavior change.
Shame, on the other hand, is defined as follows by the APA: “a highly unpleasant self-conscious emotion arising from the sense of there being something dishonorable, immodest, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances. It is typically characterized by withdrawal from social intercourse—for example, by hiding or distracting the attention of another from one’s shameful action—which can have a profound effect on psychological adjustment and interpersonal relationships.”
Dr. June Price Tangney, a professor of psychology at George Mason University, clarifies that the primary difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is felt toward a behavior, but shame is felt toward oneself.
In other words, guilt might lead you to feel bad about saying something mean to a friend, for example, and might drive you to apologize or find other means of reconciliation. In this context, you feel you’re a good person who did something bad. But shame might make you think you are a bad person for making that mistake, and you may lose self-worth or confidence as a result.
Shame, Guilt, And Anger
Everyone feels an emotion like anger at some point or another. What we do with our anger depends partly on whether we're prone to feeling shame or guilt. People who tend to feel guilty tend to be better at using their anger constructively, so they may be able to make changes or solve problems when they become angry. People who tend to feel ashamed, on the other hand, may use their shame-powered anger in destructive ways, like tearing themselves down or being aggressive toward others.
Shame And Guilt Scales
The Guilt and Shame Proneness (GASP) scale is a test that psychologists devised for use in experimental studies of guilt and shame. The GASP assesses differences in the way you respond to doing something that you consider wrong. It looks at your feelings about the event and the behaviors that might repair the situation. It also aims to assess your feelings of shame and other negative behaviors. If you're not sure whether you're more prone to feel ashamed or guilty, this test may give you some insight into your own guilt and shame. With this information, you may be better equipped to work through these emotions.
Unlike shame, guilt is often associated with actions. We tend to feel guilty when we've harmed someone or when we're not proud of our actions. We may recognize that our actions can make others feel physically or emotionally bad, and in our compassion, we feel guilty and want to make it right. As we mature, we might also feel guilty because we have something that others don't have. As long as our emotions aren't extreme, this may be a healthy aspect of guilt. It can prompt you to work to correct imbalances.
While we can feel shame because we've done something that we or others think is wrong, on a deeper level, some psychologists believe the feeling isn't really about our actions. According to Dr. June Price Tangney, “You feel shame when others know what you've done; you feel guilt when only you know.”
If we feel shame, we may have done something wrong, but instead of thinking about our actions, we may dwell on what we think it means: proof that we're a bad, inferior, or selfish person.
A Negative Self-Evaluation Isn't Necessary
If you're guilt-prone, you may already be aware that doing something wrong might have negative consequences. When you know you might feel bad about doing something, you may be more likely to think twice about it, so you can make a decision that you can live with if anyone finds out.
Sometimes you might do something that makes you feel guilty enough to want to make amends. It can be healthy to recognize that you made a mistake. However, overwhelming feelings of guilt can quickly turn into shame, but if you can manage your guilt in a healthy way instead of letting it spiral out of control, it can have some powerful benefits.
Managing Guilt Constructively
While guilt tends to be easier to handle than shame, it can still require thought and effort. When you're trying to work through guilt, you might consider the following tips:
Distinguish Between Action And Self
First, you can try 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. The temporary discomfort may help you make amends and make a different choice in the future.
When you realize that a behavior was wrong or inappropriate, it may help to accept responsibility for what you've done. Rather than attempting to hide it or push the blame onto someone else, you can take responsibility for your actions, which may not only make you feel better but also increase your credibility.
Sometimes, making amends is easy. You simply apologize and make reparations. However, other times, making amends can be more complex. You might not be able to undo the harm you caused, and you might not 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 repair find other ways to make amends. This might involve helping others. For example, if you ignored a person in need on your way home, you might not be able to find that person again. Instead, you may choose to volunteer at a soup kitchen to help other people in a similar position.
Take A Problem-Solving Approach
Instead of berating yourself after making a mistake, it is likely more productive to look for solutions. If you've done something that you consider wrong, you might ask what you can do to make things right. If you can't make amends with the person you wronged, you might look for something else you can do for others like them.
Make Better Choices
Sometimes, guilt can have a way of changing your perspective. When you do something that you regret, you may find that this event becomes a catalyst for greater change. Maybe your guilt makes you want to become a better person or start down a new path in life. It may help to have a guide, such as a licensed counselor, who can help you navigate this process.
The Risks Of Feeling Deep Shame
In decades past, many parents intentionally shamed their children to discourage certain behaviors. This practice has been largely abandoned as we've come to understand that shaming can have a negative impact on children, not to mention everyone else.
Shame can be more troubling than guilt. It can be challenging for some people to separate their actions from who they are as a person. If you're experiencing shame, you may want to speak with a counselor who can help you work through it. Read on to learn about some of the downsides of shame.
Shame Can Decrease Self-Esteem
If you're prone to feel shame, you may tend to think that every negative action says something about who you are. Every mistake, no matter how big or small, can cause you to feel like less of a person. It tends to have a cumulative effect; the more shame you experience, the worse you might feel about yourself. Instead of thinking, "I did something wrong," you might think, "I'm a bad person." This mindset can lead to low self-esteem, which can affect many areas of your life.
Shame Can Lead To Anger And Mental Health Conditions
Researchers believe that shame is related to anger. People who experience what is called anger proneness tend to experience difficulty controlling their anger. Also, feelings of shame tend to be a component of many mental health disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), including substance use disorder (previously referred to as substance abuse and substance dependence in the DSM-4).
Shame Can Promote Unethical Behavior
Unlike guilt, shame might not make you a better person. Instead, people who experience shame may be more likely to act poorly and hide it from others. Thinking they're unable to change, they may blame their personality for their bad behavior, and sometimes they may blame others. It can be challenging to adopt a problem-solving attitude when you're feeling shame, hiding what you've done, and mitigating the blame. When that happens, it can become difficult to work, live, or socialize with others.
Shame Can Create A Sense Of Hopelessness
Changing what you do tends to seem easier than changing who you are. If you're prone to feeling shame, life can seem without meaning, especially if you feel powerless to change. You may feel like giving up on trying to be a good person. You may also isolate yourself from others to hide your shame, or you may even become depressed or suicidal.*
If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available 24/7.
There is hope for individuals experience both guilt and shame. Many people change their behavior and improve their self-esteem, moving past shame and guilt. Working on guilt and shame may not be easy, but it can be done.
Seeking Support For Overcoming Shame
Shame can be a challenging emotion, but feeling shame doesn't mean you're a morally deficient or inferior person. If you'd like to learn healthy ways to address shame, a therapist with experience in this area may be able to help you.
If your feelings of guilt or shame make you feel hesitant to see a therapist in person, you might consider online therapy. With online therapy platforms like BetterHelp, you can schedule an appointment from a location of your choice as long as there is a reliable internet connection. You can communicate with your therapist via audio chat, videoconferencing, or live chat—whatever makes you more comfortable. Also, if you have questions or concerns in between sessions, you can contact your therapist via in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can.
The reality is that no one is so beyond repair or worth that they do not deserve the opportunity for support.
Online therapy has proven effective in helping people overcome various mental health challenges connected to guilt and/or shame. In one study involving over 100 participants randomly assigned to wait list control groups, self-help internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (iCBT) groups, and guided iCBT groups, researchers found that participation in the internet-based programs, particularly the exposure module, alleviated social anxiety symptoms by reducing levels of shame proneness.
Even if you have acknowledged that you are feeling guilt instead of shame, online therapy might help you process this emotion and apply your insights toward personal progress. A recently concluded randomized controlled trial of a self-guided trauma-informed guilt reduction (TrIGR) program was successful in reducing guilt experienced by combat veterans diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you’re curious to learn about others’ experiences with BetterHelp online therapists, consider reading the reviews below from previous clients.
"It's great to be meeting Lori online, and she helped me to make sense of the situation I found myself in. She helped me to define what is going on and stopped the immediate feeling of guilt and feelings of being lost."
"As a victim of trauma I was told to find a very compassionate counselor and I am so grateful to her for having that quality and in a healthy manner as to not increase my codependency issues. Having trust issues as well, she never makes me feel shame when I tell her about really sensitive issues. She is a great counselor and extremely knowledgeable in different aspects of therapy."
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):
Do Guilt And Shame Go Hand In Hand?
Both shame and guilt are emotions involving negative self-evaluation due to one’s perceived shortcomings. However, they differ in that guilt tends to involve an individual’s distress after they have violated their personal moral standards. For example, an individual may feel guilty after lying to a friend. Guilty feelings are thought to lead to either self-punishment or productive behavior aimed at reparation. For this reason, feeling guilty is not always negative. It can spur an individual toward making amends or reconsidering a specific behavior or attitude.
On the other hand, shame is a painful feeling that involves a person’s negative evaluation of themselves as a person—not just their actions. Shame can lead to many harmful outcomes. It can cause an individual to develop a negative self-image, become withdrawn, or believe that they are unworthy of connection with others.
Which Is Worse—Shame Or Guilt?
Both shame and guilt can be challenging to navigate. However, they tend to be a different type of emotional experience. While guilt tends to be primarily centered on self-blame for a specific action, an individual experiencing shame may be more likely to feel badly about themselves.
Both emotions can feel unpleasant. However, guilt typically focuses more on a behavior, not on an individual’s core sense of worthiness. For instance, a person may show up late to work, and while they felt guilty, their self-worth may not be impacted by their mistake. On the other hand, someone who spirals into shame may feel like they themselves are bad because of their perceived failing as an employee.
Shame can have significant impacts on an individual’s mental health and well-being. Research has revealed a connection between the tendency toward experiencing shame (a trait called shame proneness) and several mental health conditions. Ongoing shame may also increase a person’s risk of social withdrawal, substance use, or other potentially harmful behaviors. If you find that you frequently experience shame, you may benefit from working with a mental health professional. They may be able to help you uncover the root of your shame and move forward with a healthy, more realistic perspective of yourself.
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