Is Guilt Different From Shame? Psychology Makes The Distinction

Updated November 08, 2019

Humiliation, disgrace, and discomfort. These are all synonyms for one negative emotion: shame. Psychological research shows that shame usually comes as a response to feeling like one has failed in some way. We may shame regarding our bodies, sexual preferences, our intelligence, and our needs. Shame speaks-telling us that we aren't good enough at our core.

Although people often confuse the two, shame is different than guilt. A person usually feels guilty because of an action that they see as wrong (i.e., having stolen something, having cheated on one's spouse.) It's also separate from embarrassment which deals with social responses. Shame is connected to the way one feels about self. Guilt says "bad action" while shame says "bad person."

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Feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness connected to shame, create a road that leads to unhealthy decisions and mistakes that wouldn't be made with a secure sense of self. So what can we do about this emotion? Is there a way to get rid of feelings of shame? Psychology experts recommend the following five steps:

#1: Understand The Emotion

We cannot heal something we don't 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. These serious side-effects make it extremely important to understand the three parts of shame and the three things that help it grow.

  1. Shame stems from mistrust of self. When we are dealing with 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 over and over again that we are bad, especially during childhood.

Statements like "you're stupid," questions like "what were you thinking?" along with constant criticisms and putdowns are the perfect ingredients for toxic shame. This type of judgment (from others and ourselves) is one of the three things that help shame 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. Shame can make a person obsessive and overly focused on changing into someone new. Because we hate ourselves and don't trust ourselves, we feel that the only way to stop the pain is to be someone new.

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Instead of looking within, we seek solutions from people and things. Books, teachers, friends, romantic relationships, gurus, potions, drugs, sex, food, _________. Nothing works. When it doesn't, we turn to secrecy, hiding our inadequacy behind smiles and false-confidence, flashy cars, make-up, and nice clothing. This only causes more feelings of shame psychology experts say.

  1. By falling into destructive patterns and giving our power to others, we fail to protect ourselves. Because our 'warning' system is down, we end up in situations with dangerous people and things and then self-blame when they hurt us. Instead of seeing that abusive partners, alcohol, etc. are bad for us and separating ourselves from them, we cling tighter and blame ourselves for the outcome, often in silence. 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. Believe it or not, guilt can be constructive. It helps us mold our behavior and stops 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 dealing with shame, we struggle with not feeling good enough about who we actually are at the core, not actions we have taken. For this reason, shame has no positive characteristics and should be dealt with as quickly as possible.

#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 is 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.

There are triggers deep inside you. Think of them as "shame activated buttons." According to those who study shame psychology, these triggers are usually attached to core feelings of inadequacy and the related memories. Common triggers center around parenting, professional life, body image, health, religion, personality, and traumatic experiences. Do you ever think some of these shame-based thoughts?

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  • 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'm a failure.
  • I am not _______ enough.

If so, you're probably dealing with an internal enemy, toxic shame. One way to defeat your rival is to combat his 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:

  1. Recognize your shame and identify your triggers.
  2. Become critically aware by searching to figure out why the specific triggers exist (what has caused this shame?)
  3. Tell your story. Connect with others, ask for and give support. Don't suffer in silence anymore.
  4. Discuss and deconstruct feelings of shame as they arise.

Step three and four can be worked through much easier with the help of a certified mental health counselor. Because becoming resilient to shame isn't a onetime process, it is something you will need to practice over and over again.

#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.

One major component of getting rid of shame, psychology experts recommend is to challenge the 'negative talk' going on inside your mind.

The first way to challenge your thoughts can be compared to a game of baseball. Imagine that you're up to bat and waiting for the pitcher. You have little control over when, how fast, or what direction he will pitch the ball. You do have control over your bat, your arms, and your legs. The same can be said with negative thoughts. You can't predict them, and you can't control them, but you can knock them out of the park.

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 stupid, no one will ever hire me" pops into your mind. You had no control over this thought, but by ignoring it, you essentially agree with it.

Instead, think a counter-statement 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 as a way to challenge them, 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 are one of the strongest triggers for shame, so we need to tackle negative ones as quickly and powerfully as possible.

#5 Replace Bad Habits With Self-Care

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Toxic shame is the root of many bad habits and harmful addictions that we 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 only make problems worse.

If shame had an antidote like other poisons, it would be love. Being able to have compassion for oneself can seem like a foreign concept for those of us who struggle with longstanding shame. After all, how can you love something that you hate and despise?

There are many ways to practice self-care that can lead to more positive feelings and get rid of toxic feelings of self-loathing and shame. Psychology trained therapists recommend the following:

Recharge physically by taking a bath or shower, getting your nails done, getting a massage, going for a walk, going to the gym, getting your hair done, putting on makeup, getting dressed in an outfit that makes you feel good, riding a bike, doing yoga, or going for a hike or swim.

Recharge emotionally by praying, meditating, reading an inspirational book, listening to music, playing with your pet, watching a movie, talking to a friend on the phone. Other activities that you can indulge into are journaling, writing a poem, drawing or painting, trying a hobby you've always wanted to try, planting a garden, making a list of things you're good at and watching funny videos online. Eating a yummy dessert, logging on to an online support group, doing a craft, unplug from electronics and spend some time in nature, look at old family photo albums, play a game on your phone, or snuggle up with a warm blanket and take a nap.

Some of the self-care activities listed above may seem silly or like 'every-day' things that we all do, but you would be surprised at how shame can stop us from accomplishing the simple things that keep us happy and healthy.

If all else fails, reach 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 getting rid of this emotion can make a world of difference.


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