Is Guilt Different From Shame? Psychologists Make The Distinction

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated June 9, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Guilt and shame can go hand-in-hand, but they’re ultimately separate from one another. Healthy guilt can keep us from acting in ways that go against our morals. It can remind us to apologize when we’ve wronged another person or to not make a mistake again. Shame, however, tends to linger and berate us over something from our past. Often, it is difficult to get rid of without acceptance and healing. Feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness connected to shame sometimes create a road that leads to unhealthy decisions and mistakes. So, what can we do about this emotion? Is there a way to get rid of feelings of shame? Consider the following five steps outlined in this article.
Is Shame Or Guilt Holding You Back In Life?

Is Guilt Different From Shame?

Shame usually comes as a response to feeling like we have failed in some way. We may experience shame regarding our bodies, sexual preferences, intelligence, or even our needs. Although people often confuse the two, shame is different from guilt. A person may feel guilty because of an action that they see as wrong (i.e., having stolen something, having cheated on one's spouse, etc.), but shame is connected to the way one feels about oneself. Guilt tells us an action is bad, while shame tells us that we are bad. 

Distinguishing Guilt From Shame

#1: Understand The Emotion

It’s difficult to heal from something that we don't fully understand. Shame can have long-lasting effects on our relationships, overall mental health, and even our physical well-being. It can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, personality disorders, digestive issues, and panic attacks. To avoid these serious side effects, it’s important to understand the three parts of shame and the three factors that contribute to it.

  1. Shame stems from mistrust of self. When we experience shame, we are struggling with feelings of inadequacy. We don't trust our judgments, feelings, or abilities. This type of overwhelming shame often stems from being told repeatedly that we are bad, especially during childhood. Statements like "you're stupid," questions like "what were you thinking?" along with constant criticisms and putdowns can be the perfect ingredients for toxic shame. This type of judgment (from others and ourselves) is one of the three things that can allow shame to grow.

  1. Once we begin to believe that we are broken, damaged, or otherwise inadequate, we begin a desperate search to fix this problem. This is the second part of shame, and it can make a person overly focused on changing into someone new. Instead of looking within, we often seek solutions from people and things: books, teachers, friends, romantic relationships, gurus, drugs, sex, food, etc. When none of this works, we turn to secrecy, hiding our inadequacy behind smiles and false confidence, flashy cars, make-up, or nice clothing. But this may only cause more feelings of shame.

  1. Because our 'warning' system is down, we may end up in situations with dangerous people and things and then self-blame when they hurt us. Instead of seeing abusive partners, alcohol, and other self-destructive things as bad for us and separating ourselves from them, we cling tighter and blame ourselves for the outcome. Once again, our shame is multiplied.

#2 Noun Vs. Verb: Know the Difference

Guilt is almost always attached to a verb. We lie and we feel guilty. We let down a friend, guilt creeps in. What we think of as our conscience is often guilt telling us that something we have said or done is not aligned with our internal belief systems. Guilt can actually be constructive. It can help us mold our behavior and stop us from repeating mistakes.

Shame is different. Shame is not attached to actions but nouns (i.e., our actual self-worth and self-esteem). When we are experiencing shame, we struggle with not feeling good enough about who we are at the core, not mere actions we have taken. For this reason, shame has few positive characteristics and may need to be addressed with a mental health counselor.

#3 Get Rid Of The Enemy

A wise African Proverb says that "when there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.” When shame becomes a problem, the enemy is indeed within. It holds us back in fear, telling us at every turn that we are not worthy and not good enough.

If you are experiencing shame, you may have certain subconscious triggers that make it stronger in different moments. You could think of them as "shame activation buttons.” According to those who study shame psychology, these triggers are usually attached to core feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Common triggers center around parenting, professional life, body image, health, religion, personality, and traumatic experiences. Do you believe any of these shame-based thoughts?

  • I am dirty or disgusting.

  • I am not good enough; I am useless.

  • No one loves or appreciates me.

  • I am pitiful and miserable.

  • I am not worth anything; there is no value to me.

  • Nothing I do is right; I am a failure.

  • I am not (fill in the blank) enough.

If so, you may be dealing with an internal enemy: toxic shame. One way to defeat your rival is to combat this negative talk with positivity. When you are triggered, take notice. If an outside source was attacking you, would you ignore it? Don't run and hide when shame creeps up. According to Dr. Brene Brown's resilience theory, this is the first step in overcoming shame. The process is as follows:

  1. Recognize your shame and identify your triggers.

  2. Become critically aware by searching to figure out why the specific triggers exist (i.e., what has caused this shame?)

  3. Tell your story. Connect with others, ask for and give support. Don't endure in silence anymore.

  4. Discuss and deconstruct feelings of shame as they arise.

Steps three and four can be worked through with the help of a certified mental health counselor. Becoming resilient to shame isn't a one-time process. Instead, it is something you will often need to practice repeatedly.

#4 Challenge Your Thoughts

There is a saying "don't believe everything you hear," but the same principle holds when it comes to your thoughts. Feeling or thinking something doesn't make it true.

Shame-based thoughts are often out of touch with reality.

Although you may feel like a "loser," that term doesn't define who you are. Thus, one strategy psychology experts recommend for getting rid of shame is to challenge the 'negative talk' going on inside your mind.

Let's say you've been looking for a job but are struggling to find one. While looking for leads online, the thought "I'm so inadequate, no one will ever hire me" pops into your mind. Although you had no control over this thought, you can still take steps to overcome it. Instead of ignoring the thought, think of a positive counterstatement like, "That's not true. I have lots of skills, and I will find the right place to use them."

You can also question these thoughts by asking yourself:

  • Is this thought true?

  • What is the evidence for or against this thought?

  • What can I do to let go of this thought?

  • Am I willing to release this thought and think of a positive one instead?

 Our thoughts can be one of the strongest triggers for shame, so we may need to tackle negative ones as quickly and powerfully as possible.

#5 Replace Bad Habits With Self-Care

Toxic shame can be the root of many bad habits and harmful addictions that we might struggle with. Many people use food, sex, gambling, alcohol, nicotine, and drugs to drown out the negative thoughts that shame pumps into their minds. Unfortunately, these ways of coping often make problems worse.

If shame had an antidote like other poisons, it would be love. Having compassion for oneself can seem like a foreign concept for those of us who struggle with longstanding shame. However, there are many ways to practice self-care that can lead to more positive feelings and get rid of toxic feelings of self-loathing. Some therapists recommend the following:

You can recharge physically by:

  • Stretching

  • Taking a bath or shower

  • Getting your nails done

  • Getting a massage

  • Taking a nap

  • Going for a walk

  • Going to the gym

  • Eating a hearty meal

  • Riding a bike

  • Practicing yoga

  • Going for a hike or swim

  • Getting a good night of rest

You can recharge mentally by:

  • Praying

  • Meditating

  • Reading an inspirational book

  • Listening to music

  • Playing with your pet

  • Watching a movie

  • Putting down your phone for a time

  • Talking to a friend on the phone

  • Taking a break

  • Journaling 

Other activities that you can indulge in are writing, drawing, painting, or trying a new hobby. Some of the self-care activities listed above may seem like 'everyday' things that we all do, but you may be surprised at how shame can stop us from accomplishing the simple things that keep us happy and healthy. Anything that relaxes and recharges you in a positive way is an activity worth pursuing. 

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

Overcoming shame can be difficult to do on your own. Since many shameful feelings are rooted in the past, you may need help from a professional to work through your emotions. A licensed therapist can support you in overcoming negative experiences from your past so that you may develop a stronger sense of freedom from them. Counselors at BetterHelp are trained to listen and offer proven strategies for resolving the complex emotions associated with guilt and shame.

Talking about past experiences that contributed to your shameful feelings can be hard to do. You may not have anyone in your life with whom you’re comfortable opening up completely. Online therapy allows you to process your emotions with a trusted, nonjudgmental professional. You can choose the environment in which you meet with them, such as your home, giving you greater control over sessions.

The Efficacy Of Online Therapy

People struggling with shame often prefer to utilize online therapy because it gives them the privacy and security that they need to share what’s on their mind. Research suggests that simply talking about your shame in an online setting has the potential to decrease those negative feelings. Participants who shared a shameful story or secret from their past experienced a reduction in their feelings of shame. 


If your feelings of shame are persistent, consider reaching out to a certified therapist for help. Ignoring toxic shame won't make it go away but facing it head-on with the help of someone trained in resolving this emotion can make a world of difference.

If you’re feeling like burying yourself under the covers instead of taking the steps to get the help you need, you’re not alone. Shame can often cause us to withdraw and avoid others. One solution is online therapy. Sometimes, going online for help instead of in person can make the process less intimidating for people experiencing intense feelings of shame or guilt.

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