Distinguishing Shame from Guilt

Lesson objective:

This lesson explains the difference between guilt and shame, the emotions associated with both, and their impact on our actions.

Feelings of guilt and shame are among the emotions that play an important role in determining our thoughts and feelings, and our mental and physical health. They also play an important role in the development and recovery of trauma. 

In many languages, the words for “guilt” and “shame” are used interchangeably. 

They are often used along with a series of other emotion words like remorse, regret, contrition, and embarrassment to indicate a negative self-conscious emotion that occurs when rules, norms, or social agreements dictating what is right or wrong have been broken. 

These words are all attempts at naming the emotion that follows the subjective experience of “I did a horrible thing.”

There is, however, an important distinction between guilt and shame.

When feeling self-conscious emotions, we could be negatively evaluating ourselves (“I did a horrible thing”) or we could be negatively evaluating a specific behavior (“The thing I did is horrible”).

The statement that condemns the self is an example of shame, while the statement that condemns a specific behavior is an example of guilt.

Guilt is a behavior-focused, negative self-conscious emotion. When we feel guilty, we attribute a violation of social or inner morals to external factors—to something we did, but not necessarily to who we are. 

Feeling guilt motivates us to behave differently regarding the transgressed social norm or to take reparative actions such as confessing or making amends.

On the other hand, shame is a self-focused negative emotion. When we experience shame, we conclude that our violation of social or inner morals either stems from who we are or defines who we are. 

Shame carries a focus on the self, on who we are and on self-oriented distress. That self-focus, while not coming from any actual selfishness, can disrupt our ability to empathize with others. 

Empathy is the ability to understand and mirror the emotional and mental state of others. In other words, in the context of shame, we may look and think inwards instead of outwards, in some sense “hiding” from others. This can exacerbate relationship difficulties and numbness we discussed earlier. In focusing internally, we may lose our ability to listen to and empathize with others, even if their situations and feelings are quite similar to ours.

While both guilt and shame can create discomfort and pain, the distinctions between the two matter.