Shame Vs Guilt: What’s The Difference?
Updated: May 22, 2022
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. But there is a difference between shame and guilt and the difference has a significant impact on how we view ourselves, each other, and the world.
Shame vs Guilt
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. Like shame, guilt provokes both thoughts of how we have failed as well as distressing emotions like sadness, anger, or anxiety. It can even cause physical reactions, such as an upset stomach, like shame can. If resolved appropriately, some guilt can be healthy.
Shame, on the other hand, is defined as an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
The main difference between shame and guilt is that shame makes you see yourself as a bad person, whilst 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.
Guilt = I did bad
Shame = I am bad
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 guilt, you might say, "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, " 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? Unlike guilt, 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 between guilt and shame is important. Guilt can be healthy because it allows us to identify and correct potentially problematic behaviours. Shame, on the other hand, finds a problem with the person instead of the behaviour. Everyone experiences guilt and shame, some more than others, but you can learn to handle both emotions with the right tools.
Shame, Guilt, Behaviour
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 guilt 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 shame-powered anger in destructive ways, tearing themselves down or being aggressive toward others.
Actions and Possessions
Most often, unlike shame, guilt is associated with actions and possessions. We feel guilt when we've harmed someone or when we're not proud of our actions. We recognise that our actions can make others feel physically or emotionally bad, and in our compassion, we feel guilt and want to make it right. As we mature, we might also feel guilt 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, flawed, 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 the guilt enough to want to make amends. It can be healthy to recognise 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.
The Harm of Shame
In decades past, many parents intentionally shamed their children to discourage certain behaviours. 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.
Shame Decreases Self-Esteem
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.
Shame 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 for guilt and shame. People change their behaviour and improve their self-esteem every day, moving past shame and guilt. Working on guilt and 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.
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 shame and grow from the experience without shame.
Adapted from the following article:
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