Shame vs. Guilt – What’s the Difference?

Have you ever felt shameful about something? How about guilty? Are shame and guilt the same or are they fundamentally different emotional concepts? Researchers have recently taken an interest in defining and understanding shame and guilt, including the impact of these emotional responses. One of the central elements of this work relates to the way shame and guilt are differentiated. Here’s a look at the difference:
  • Shame is an emotional response which leads a person to conclude, “I am inherently flawed and defective, and therefore unworthy of love and connectedness.”
  • Guilt is an emotional response in which a person concludes, “I behaved in a way that went against my values and morals and I feel badly about my actions.”
Essentially it’s the difference between a person believing that they are bad (shame), and a person believing that they behaved badly (guilt). Because the two words are often used interchangeably, it can be difficult to decipher which is which. In counseling, shame is often found to be an underlying cause of depression, anxiety, poor self esteem, and even failed relationships. For this reason it is beneficial to understand and identify how shame and guilt may impact your life. Are you still unsure about the differences? Here are a few other ways to know whether you are experiencing the effects of shame or guilt:
  • Shame is always harmful to a person. Guilt can be helpful.
    • Shame serves to damage a person’s self-image, whereas guilt can lead a person to change their behaviors and improve him/herself.
  • Shame is a toxic, learned response. Guilt is natural and can be adaptive.
    • Shame stems from abuse, neglect, absent caregivers, and other troublesome childhood experiences. Guilt is a natural emotional response to behaving in a way that goes against our values which often motivates a person to change.
  • Shame is associated with negative outcomes. Guilt is associated with positive outcomes.
    • Shame can lead to addiction, aggression, depression, and anger. Guilt is associated with prosocial effects like empathy and understanding.
If you think shame has a negative impact on your life, counseling can help. A counselor can work with you to help identify shame and learn ways to counteract these negative reactions. Contact NewPoint of View Counseling today to get started on the path of hope and healing!