Guilt Vs. Shame: What’s The Difference And Why Does It Matter?
By: William Drake
Updated August 25, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Patricia Corlew , LMFT, LPC,
Guilt and shame are two words that we use almost interchangeably. They both describe a negative emotion in response to our actions, but they have very different meanings. In this article, we'll discuss that difference between shame vs guilt in detail because it has a significant impact on how we view ourselves, each other, and the world.
Shame vs Guilt Defined
In psychology, guilt is defined as an emotional state that appears when we feel we have failed to live up to the morals of ourselves or others. Guilt provokes 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. If resolved appropriately, some guilt can be healthy.
Shame, on the other hand, is defined as an intense feeling about the self that comes from failing to live up to your own or others' standards. Sounds similar, right? Well, the main difference is that shame makes you see yourself as a bad person while guilt implies, you are a good person who did something bad. Shame is unhealthy, especially if it's not resolved, because it leads to loss of self-esteem over time. When you consider shame vs guilt, they can both be unpleasant.
Let's look at an example. Imagine you become distracted while driving. You don't notice the light turning yellow, so you run a red light, and you almost hit someone. If you feel guilty, you might say, "Oh man, oh man, I really messed that up. I should be more careful. I should work on not getting distracted."
Shame is more toxic and harmful to your self-esteem. Shame says, "Oh man, oh man, I am an awful driver. I am a horrible person. I should not be allowed to drive; I should not even be allowed to go to work." Do you see the difference? With shame, it's about you as a person, not your actions. Shame can also come from outside sources. In this example, you might feel shame if the person in the passenger's seat berated you for being a bad person.
Overall, the difference is important. Guilt can be healthy because it allows us to identify and correct potentially problematic behaviors. Shame, on the other hand, finds a problem with the person instead of the behavior. Everyone experiences guilt and shame, some more than others, but you can learn to handle both emotions with the right tools.
Shame, Guilt, and Behavior
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 guilt or shame. People who tend to feel guilty are better at using their guilt constructively, so they can make changes or solve problems when they become angry. Shame-prone people, on the other hand, tend to use their anger in destructive ways, 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. 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 assesses your feelings of shame and other negative behaviors. If you're not sure whether you're more prone to guilt or shame, this test may give you some insight. With this information, you'll be better equipped to work through your emotions.
Actions and Possessions
Most often, guilt is associated with actions and possessions. We feel guilty when we've harmed someone or when we're not proud of our actions. We recognize that our actions can make others feel physically or emotionally bad, and in our compassion, we 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 is the healthy side of guilt. It can prompt you to correct imbalances.
Shame has only a limited link to our actions. Yes, we feel shame because we've done something that we or others think is wrong, but on a deeper level, the feeling isn't really about our actions at all. It's about who we are as a person. We may have done something wrong, but instead of thinking about our actions, we dwell on what we think it means-we think it's proof that we're a bad, stupid, inferior, or selfish person. As such, we do nothing.
A Negative Self-Evaluation Isn't Necessary
If you're guilt-prone, you're already aware that doing something wrong might have negative consequences. When you know you might feel bad about doing something, you're 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. For example, you might have accepted too much change from a cashier, but that doesn't mean you are a horrible person overall. It just means that you did one thing that may conflict with your or society's morals.
When you feel guilt instead of shame, you see the occasional error as separate from who you are. You're still a good person, and you can make amends when you do something wrong. Essentially, everyone makes mistakes from time to time. It's part of being human, and it's healthy to accept that. Overwhelming feelings of guilt can quickly turn into shame, but if you can deal with your guilt in a healthy way instead of letting it spiral out of control, it can have some powerful benefits.
Dealing Appropriately with Guilt
While guilt is easier to handle than shame, it can still require thought and effort. When you're trying to work through guilt, here's what you need to do.
Distinguish Between Action and Self
First, 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 can help you make amends and make a different choice in the future. The discomfort helps you learn from the experience.
When you realize 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 example where you got too much change from the cashier, you could just say, "I'm sorry. Let me return the extra change."
Sometimes, though, making amends isn't easy. You might not be able to undo the harm you caused, but 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 repair find other ways to make amends. This might involve helping others. For example, if you ignored a homeless person who was obviously 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 beating yourself up or getting angry with others, it's more productive to look for solutions. If you've done something that you consider wrong, what can you do to make things right? If you can't make amends with the person you wronged, is there something else you can do for others like them.
Make Better Choices
Sometimes, guilt can have a funny way of changing your entire perspective. When you do something that you can't accept, you may find that this event becomes a catalyst for greater change. Maybe you want to become a better person or start down a new path in life.
It often helps to have a guide who can help you navigate these new waters. A spiritual advisor, a counselor, or even a wise friend or family member may be able to support you along the way.
The Harm of Shame
In decades past, many parents intentionally shamed their children to discourage certain behaviors. This practice has been mostly abandoned as we've come to understand that shaming has a negative impact on kids, not to mention everyone else.
Shame can be more troubling than guilt. It's hard for some people to separate their actions from who they are as a person. If you're struggling with 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.
When you're prone to shame, you tend to think that every negative action says something about who you are. Every mistake, no matter how big or small, makes you feel like less of a person. It tends to have a cumulative effect; the more shame you experience, the worse you feel about yourself. Instead of saying, "I did something wrong," you say, "I'm a bad person." This quickly leads to low self-esteem, which can affect all areas of your life.
Promotes Unethical Behavior
Unlike guilt, shame won't make you a better person. Instead, people who cling to shame are more likely to act poorly and hide it from others. Thinking they're unable to change, they blame their personality for their bad behavior, and sometimes they 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. When that happens, it can become difficult to work, live, or socialize with others.
Creates a Sense of Hopelessness
Changing what you do is easier than changing who you are. If you're prone to shame, life can seem hopeless if you feel powerless to change. You may give up on trying to be a good person. You may also isolate from others to hide your shame, or you may even become depressed or suicidal.
However, there is hope. People change their behavior and improve their self-esteem every day. Working on shame may not be easy, but it can be done.
What to Do When You Can't Get Past Your Shame
Shame is a challenging emotion, but feeling shame doesn't mean you're a morally deficient or otherwise inferior person. You can learn how to overcome guilt and shame with the right support. If you'd like to learn healthier ways to respond to your mistakes, consider working with a counselor.
BetterHelp.com offers private, affordable online therapy from the comfort of your own home. You can work with a licensed professional counselor, so you can learn to manage your emotions and feel better about yourself. Below are a couple reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
"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 shamed when I tell her about really sensitive issues. She is a great counselor and extremely knowledgeable in different aspects of therapy."
The difference between shame and guilt may seem superficial, but it's crucial to understand it, so you can learn to handle your emotions better. We all make mistakes, but they don't have to affect your self-esteem. Instead, you can learn from guilt and grow from the experience without shame. All you need are the right tools-take the first step.
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