Is It Guilt Or Shame?
Often we hear the terms guilt and shame used together, or thought of as interchangeable. The truth is, they are very different and impact us in different ways. It is important to know and understand the difference in order to take the necessary actions to improve our lives. Let’s look at 7 differences:
1- Shame means “I am wrong or defective”. Guilt means “I did something wrong.”
Shame impacts our self image or that we have the ability to change, whereas
Guilt is about feeling badly about a mistake.
2- Guilt can lead to positive change, shame never does.
When we feel guilt it can inspire us to act differently, because we feel badly about something. Shame however often creates avoidance or ignoring that which creates a sense of shame. For example if we have shame around our weight, smoking or some other habit that needs to be changed, we will avoid places, conversations, or activities that highlight our internal shame.
3- Shame disconnects us from others; guilt can lead to healing.
Shame prevents us from sharing our thoughts, feelings and mistakes, making us defensive when others point them out. With Guilt we can confess our errors and be vulnerable with others, which can build deeper connections, better communication and a sense of relief.
4- Shame is internalized and connected to who we believe we are. Guilt is passing
Any comments that trigger our shame appear to be accurate statements about our character, abilities or worth. These comments are internalized as truth and continue to haunt us long after the event or comment was made. Guilt will fade with time or after corrective action is taken.
5- Shame is Never healthy or useful; Guilt can be healthy and useful.
Many times people make shaming comments with the intention it will inspire someone to change. In reality the comments have the opposite effect. Guilt can be a useful response to help interpersonal relationships exist. Be careful how negative feedback is conveyed- simply state the harm caused, or desired behavior rather than shame the other person.
6- Shame is about causing pain, Guilt is associated with accountability.
Shame often makes 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.
7- Shame underlies a multitude of psychosocial problems, guilt does not.
Shame underlies such conditions as depression, substance abuse, infidelity, and anger issues to name a few. Since shame is based on negative assessments of one’s entire being, feeling shame can contribute to larger mental health problems. The avoidance of overwhelming shame seems easier, which leads to unhealthy behaviors. SHAME IS A TRAP!
Readings for more insight and information.
I Thought It Was Just Me by Brené Brown
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
Shame and Guilt by Jane Middleton-Moz
Letting Go of Shame by Ronald & Patricia Potter-Effron
Article Authored By:
Maren Ernstrom, LCMHC, MT-BC
Clinical Director – Copper Hills, Recovery Ways