Guilt and shame are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Regardless of which one is being experienced the risk for toxic shame or guilt can be present. Clay County Hospital Behavioral Health is Available to Help.
Guilt: A feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
Shame: The painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.
- Shame means “I am wrong.” Guilt means “I did something wrong.” Shame hurts our self-image and our belief that we can change things we don’t like about ourselves or our situation. Guilt is about feeling badly about a mistake.
- Shame does not lead to positive change; guilt does. When we experience shame, we often will try to ignore or avoid whatever caused the sense of shame. For example, when we feel shame about being overweight, we will avoid the gym or physical activity to avoid the feeling of shame. Guilt is feeling badly about something and can inspire us to act differently in the future.
- Shame always leads to disconnection from others. Guilt can lead to healing. Confessing our errors allows us to be vulnerable with others, so guilty feelings can prompt us to build a connection through communication or changed behavior. Shame prevents us from feeling strong enough to confess our mistakes, making us defensive when others point them out.
- Shame is internalized and deeply connected to our sense of who we are. Guilt is often passing. Shame-based comments appear to be accurate statements about our character or lack thereof. Those comments are easily internalized as truth about who we are, haunting us long after the comment was made. Guilt, on the other hand, fades with time or after corrective action is taken.
- Shame is never healthy or useful. Guilt can be healthy and useful. Often people will make shaming comments with the best of intentions, hoping the comment will inspire someone to change something. As mentioned above, shame has the opposite effect. Guilt, however, is a useful response that helps interpersonal relationships exist. Be careful how you convey negative feedback – it will work better to simply state the harm caused than to shame the other person.
- Shame is about causing pain for an individual. Guilt is usually associated with accountability. Shame is about making someone feel unworthy, different, or less than the speaker. Shameful comments are meant to hurt. Comments that create guilty feelings are about communicating pain or disappointment, without casting negativity on the person as a whole.
- Shame underlies a host of psycho-social problems: depression, substance abuse, infidelity, etc. Guilt does not. Since shame is based on negative assessments of a person’s entire being, feeling shame can contribute to larger mental health problems. If shame makes us feel worthless, we are more likely to develop depression. Avoiding overwhelming shame is easier if we drink to excess or abuse drugs. Shame is a trap.
Reactions to Guilt and Shame
Because of the differences between shame and guilt (who I am versus what I did), people respond to each emotion differently. Guilt, because it emphasizes what someone did wrong, tends to elicit more constructive responses, particularly responses which seek to mend the damage done. Guilt is tied to beliefs about what is right and wrong, moral and immoral. When we violate one of these moral guidelines, it causes us to feel guilty over our actions and seek to fix what we have done (see cognitive dissonance). As a result, guilt is an important tool in maintaining standards of right and wrong in individuals and society as a whole. As such, guilt can often be used as a tool to overcome conflict.
Shame, on the other hand, emphasizes what is wrong with ourselves. It has a much more inward focus, and as such, leads shameful parties to feel poorly about themselves, rather than simply the actions they have taken. The result is often an inward-turning behavior — avoiding others, hiding your face, removing yourself from social situations. Therefore, shame can be problematic, as it is often less constructive than guilt. In fact, shame can lead to withdrawal from social situations and a subsequent defensive, aggressive, and retaliatory behavior, which only exacerbates conflict, rather than alleviating it.
Shame can also lead to other types of behavior, many of which serve little or no constructive role. People cope with shame in many ways. However, few get at the actual source of the emotion. The following is a list of common shame-driven behaviors:
- Attacking or striking out at other people. In an attempt to feel better about their shame, people will oftentimes strike out at others in the hopes that they will be lifted up by bringing others down. While this behavior may produce short-term relief from shame, in the long term shame is only strengthened — in both parties — and nothing is done to get at the root of the problem.
- Seeking power and perfection. Others attempt to overcome their shame by preventing the possibility of future shame. One way in which they do this is by aiming for perfection — a process that inevitably fails and causes more problems. Another manner in which people cope is by seeking power, which makes them feel more valuable.
- Diverting blame. By blaming our faults or problems on others, we can avoid guilt and shame. However, like the previous responses, doing this fails to get at the core problems and as a result, fails to achieve its purpose.
- Being overly nice or self-sacrificing. People sometimes compensate for feelings of shame or unworthiness by attempting to be exceptionally nice to others. By pleasing everyone else, we hope to prove our worth. However, this inevitably involves covering up our true feelings, which is, once again, self-defeating.
- Withdrawal. By withdrawing from the real world, we can essentially numb ourselves to the feelings of guilt and shame so that we are no longer upset by these sorts of things. Again, nothing has been done to address the core issues of the problem.