Understanding The Differences Between Guilt And Shame

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated April 15, 2024by 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 cause us to question ourselves more deeply. 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?

Differences between shame and guilt

Both shame and guilt are self-conscious emotions, which are feelings related to our self-perception. They are also moral emotions, meaning they are tied to our sense of right and wrong—and can significantly influence our behavior. Despite the similarities these emotions have, though, they differ in several ways. 

Guilt involves a negative evaluation of one’s own actions. A person may feel guilt arising out of a specific behavior that they see as wrong (e.g., having stolen something). While feeling guilty can cause us to feel ashamed, guilt is different from shame. Unlike guilt, shame is connected to a broader negative self-evaluation. Shame usually comes as a response to feeling like we have failed in some way. Shame implies that we believe we are deficient in some area, or even a bad person. We may feel shame regarding our career, intelligence, or even our needs. 

What to do when you feel guilty or ashamed

Shame and guilt can be challenging, negative emotions when they are left unchecked. There is evidence of a connection between shame-proneness and anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other serious mental health challenges. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, shame can also prevent people from seeking care. Guilt-proneness can also have negative consequences, particularly when guilt occurs alongside shame. If you’re experiencing chronic shame or frequent guilty feelings, there are several ways you can process these emotions and change your self-perception.  

Understand the emotion

It’s difficult to heal from something that we don't fully understand. Shame can be a painful feeling that has 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 what shame is and how it develops.

Why do we feel shame?

If you’re feeling shame frequently, you may not trust yourself. When we experience shame, we are likely struggling with feelings of inadequacy. We may not trust our judgments, feelings, or abilities. This type of shame often stems from a lack of self-worth, especially during childhood. A child’s caregivers can significantly influence the amount of shame they feel later in life. Questions like "what were you thinking?" along with frequent criticisms can lead to toxic shame in a child. Traumatic experiences can also lead to high levels of shame. Additionally, experts believe that certain traits, such as self-consciousness, can cause shame to develop. 

How shame can lead to low self-esteem

If we begin to believe that we are inadequate, we may begin a search to fix this problem. This 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, etc. This can cause us to view our self-worth as being shaped by external forces instead of internal ones. If we do not receive external validation, we may experience low self-esteem. 

Noun vs. verb: Know the difference

Guilt is almost always attached to a verb. Someone lies and then feels guilty. Or we hurt a friend’s feelings, and experience guilt. What we think of as our conscience is often our own 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.

Identify negative thoughts that impact your self-esteem

If you have felt shame frequently in the past, 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?

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

  • I am not good enough
  • No one appreciates me
  • I am not worthy of love
  • I am a failure

If so, you may be dealing with unhealthy levels of shame. One way to address deep shame 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? Try to confront shame when it arises. According to the resilience theory of author and mental health professional Dr. Brene Brown, 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.


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. Thus, one strategy psychology experts recommend for getting rid of shame is to challenge the 'negative talk' going on inside your mind. Shame-based thoughts are often out of touch with reality.

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 have 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.

Replace bad habits with self-care

Shame can be associated with many harmful habits that we might develop. Many people use alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs to alleviate the negative feelings associated with shame. However, these coping mechanisms often make problems worse.

Self-love is one way of alleviating shame. Having compassion for oneself can seem like a foreign concept for people who struggle with longstanding shame. However, there are many ways to practice self-care that can lead to more positive feelings and address a negative self-conception. 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 discretion and safety that they need to express what’s on their minds. Research suggests that simply talking about your shame in an online setting has the potential to decrease those negative feelings. Participants who told a shameful story or secret from their past experienced a reduction in their feelings of shame. 

Is shame or guilt holding you back in life?


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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