Accountability: Shame vs. Guilt

Shame, not guilt, gets in the way of taking responsibility.

Posted Jan 21, 2021

Anna Tarazevich/Pexels
Source: Anna Tarazevich/Pexels

When we hold someone accountable, a guilt-prone person is likely to hear you, while the shame-prone individual reacts with defensiveness and avoids taking responsibility, all in the service of not feeling their shame. In the realm of intimate partner abuse, holding those accountable for their abusive behavior is often unsuccessful because of feelings of shame.  Most attempts to address these behaviors frequently lead to reactions of outright denial, anger, or more abuse. Shame can lead to harmful behavior at the same time, lending itself to not seeing the harm done.

Differentiating Shame from Guilt

Shame can be described “as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” (Brene Brown, podcast, July 2020)

Importantly, shame and guilt are quite different emotions. Guilt feelings arise when we feel we did something bad. Shame is about believing we are bad. “I’m bad.”  “I’m no good.” “I’m unlovable.” When we hold deep shame, we are at risk for many psychological conditions such as depression, addiction, violence, etc. 

Reactions from Guilt vs. Shame

James Gilligan, MD, in his profound work on violence, argued that what serial killers fear the most is shame.

Both guilt and shame can be elicited by some kind of perceived failure. In the reaction of guilt, the person feels some sense of responsibility for what they did, some empathy toward the one they impacted or hurt, and if anger arises, it’s managed in a way that does not lead to avoiding the responsibility. The guilt-prone person is apt to lean into repair the hurt and restore connection with the one they slighted. 

Shame is far messier. The shame-prone person reacts with avoidance, irritability, anger, hostility, or outright aggression. Feeling shame can ignite a person’s defense to externalize the horrible unworthy feeling of  “I’m bad.” that arises. By blaming outwardly, they assign responsibility for their misstep to the other. They can then feel justified in attacking the messenger by shaming, bullying, and violence.

Shame and Intimate Partner Abuse

In my work with intimate partner abuse, a partner addressing their concerns with their abuser about their hurtful language or behavior usually doesn’t get very far. It’s clear, that those who engage in abusive behavior are coming from a place of deep shame. For example, just pointing out that a partner needs to help more around the house can ignite a tirade. From a place of indignation, the abuser can use blame, degradation, gaslighting, lying, intimidation, threats, violent attacks, and murder. In essence, their reaction toward their partner is in the service of avoidance marked by “I’m never responsible and never need to apologize.” 

Shame-driven behavior can be misinterpreted by society. In a legal divorce case, a Guardian ad litem (GAL) regarding custody and visitation of their children reported that the plaintiff stated that her spouse threw a plate across the room at her and was bringing forth abuse allegations. When the judge referenced the violent behavior, the lawyer said, “She made him mad, Your Honor.” The judge accepted the explanation and he was off the hook.

Here is an example of a person holding her abusive partner responsible not in the home but in court where she expected to be heard and safe. In the end, she was held responsible for causing her partner’s violence because of what she said that caused his anger that led to the violence.

In this case, the abuser was a man and the abused was a woman. Both the lawyer and judge, for the most part, held her responsible for speaking up to her partner.  It’s deeply worrisome when those who are in positions of authority accept a defensive externalization as justified. 

No one can make you be abusive or keep you from being abusive. We can feel anger, but how we choose to express that anger is our responsibility and ours alone. 

Accountability Is Necessary

Holding others accountable for their behavior is important yet happens too little. Yes, it’s difficult and takes work. You can hold someone responsible without name-calling or demeaning but with direct and respectful language. If it taps into a place of shame for the other person who then reacts negatively, keep in mind that you are not responsible for their reaction. Don’t take on the blame they are sending your way. Be clear about what you are and are not responsible for. Stay grounded and keep your focus on the matter at hand. You can always try and then try again. In the end, if they don’t take responsibility for themselves then you learned something important about them.  



Gilligan, J. 1996. Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes. New York: A Grosset/Putnam Book