Shame and Guilt – not the same

Thursday, 15 Sep 2022

Many children will feel a sense of Guilt or Shame as they grow up but what is the difference? Are they the same? Is there a benefit to one over the other? Guilt and shame are terms that are used interchangeably but there are distinct differences. 

Guilt is an emotion we feel when we have failed or transgressed – we feel bad about having done something. When it comes to guilt, people feel tension and remorse. They think about it over and over again, wishing they had done it differently. There is a desire for confessing and apologizing for what has been done. It is hard but not pulverizing and it often leads to empathic understanding.  

People who feel shame feel they are a horrible person and feel they are deeply flawed. It is not just the one behaviour that is reflected on but ‘you’ as a person. Those who feel shame want to escape, hide and disappear and have a tendency to blame other people. “I am such a horrible person and damn it, how could you make me feel that way”. They get very defensive they often want to escape and sometimes do that with substances. 

With guilt, if you broke something you will want to apologise for it. For children who experience shame, you believe you are a bad person for breaking the thing in the first place. Sometimes they co-exist but once shame is in the picture it dominates. 

Guilt can be useful in many ways and sometimes we feel guilt when we should not say for example, when we are not responsible for things going wrong. Guilt leads to action tendencies to right the wrongs. People seek restorative approaches when guilt predominates. Guilty people can thus feel a sense of empathy toward the other. Researchers found that feelings of guilt led people to pay more attention to “reparatory stimuli”, such as words like “help”, “apologize”, and “fix”, than other types of stimuli. 

Shame interferes with thought orientation. People who experience shame ask: “I wonder what they think of me?” Do they think I am a jerk?” 

So, in summary, shame is a more destructive feeling and one that children cannot automatically control.  Brene Brown says: “I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – its holding something we have done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological comfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we have experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behaviour than the solution of cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous”. 

Shame attaches to the person. Guilt attaches to the act. Guilt makes a clear distinction between the act of wrongdoing and the person or the wrongdoer. The act was wrong, but the agent remains, in principle, intact.

One study led children to believe they had broken an adult’s toy and determined behaviorally whether the child felt shame or guilt (Drummond et al., 2017). These researchers found that children who felt shame behaved antisocially, by averting the adult’s gaze or hiding the toy, while children who felt guilt behaved pro-socially, by quickly telling the adult about what they had done and trying to fix the toy as best they could.

‘At the end of the day, guilt and shame are crucial social emotions, as they keep people from acting in pure self-interest. It is important to recognize and attempt to repair the damage that has led to guilt and shame, but it is also important to forgive oneself when a genuine attempt has been made to repair that damage. Otherwise, feelings of guilt and shame can weigh on a person in a non-prosocial way.

It is also important for people to forgive those who have wronged them when the transgressor has recognized the damage they have caused and has attempted to repair that damage.

While everyone has the right to protect themselves and ask for preparatory actions after they have been wronged, everyone also has the right to be forgiven once they have repaired that damage, or have made legitimate attempts to do so. After all, guilt and shame are fundamentally meant to lead to a more empathetic and just society.’ (Why Shame and Guilt are Functional for Mental Health Selva, 2018.

(See also Does Guilt Have a Silver Lining?  All in the Mind, ABC Podcast, 19 June)

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