What's the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?

Shame and guilt often go hand in hand, which is why they are readily confused.

Posted Mar 16, 2017

Source: Pixabay

Shame is a response to something that is morally wrong or reprehensible. It is normally accentuated if its object is exposed, but, unlike embarrassment, also attaches to a thought or action that remains undisclosed or undiscoverable to others. While embarrassment can be intense, shame is a more substantial feeling in that it pertains to our moral character and not merely to our social character or image.

Shame arises from measuring our thoughts or actions against moral standards and noticing that they fall short. If they fall short and we fail to notice, we can 'be shamed' or made to notice. If, having been made to notice we do not much mind, we are said to be shameless or to 'have no shame'. Shame can also arise from lacking in goods shared by others like us, especially if the lack is our own fault. Finally, it is possible to feel shame vicariously, that is, to share in someone else's shame or feel shame on her behalf, particularly if she is closely allied or associated with us.

'Shame' derives from 'to cover', and is often expressed by a covering gesture over the brow and eyes, a downcast gaze, and a slack posture. Other manifestations of shame include a sense of warmth or heat and mental confusion or paralysis. These signs and symptoms can communicate remorse and contrition, and inspire pity and pardon. Nonetheless, we may prefer to make a secret of our shame, for shame can in itself be shameful—or, to be more precise, embarrassing.  

People with low self-esteem, being harsher upon themselves, are more prone to shame. In some cases, they may defend against shame with blame or contempt, often for the person who incited their shame. Ultimately, this is likely to lead to even deeper shame, and so to even lower self-esteem. While overwhelming shame can be destructive, mild or moderate shame is mostly a force for good, spurring us on lead more ethical lives.

Whereas shame pertains to a person, guilt pertains to an action or actions, and to blame and remorse. Shame says, "I am bad." Guilt says, "I did something bad." More subtly, shame involves falling short of cultural or societal moral standards, whereas guilt involves falling short of one's own moral standards. Thus it is entirely possible to feel guilty about actions of which many or most of our peers approve, such as living in luxury, driving an SUV, or eating meat.

Shame and guilt often go hand in hand, which is why they are often confused. For instance, when we injure someone, we often feel bad about having done so (guilt), and, at the same time, feel bad about ourselves (shame). Yet, guilt and shame are distinct emotions. Shame is egodystonic, that is, in conflict with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego, and high levels of shame are correlated with poor psychological functioning. In particular, eating disorders and many sexual disorders can largely be understood as disorders of shame, as can narcissism, which can be construed as a defence against shame. Guilt on the other hand is egosyntonic, that is, consistent with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego, and, unless left to fester, is either unrelated or inversely correlated with poor psychological functioning. 

Faced with the same set of circumstances, people with high self-esteem are more prone to guilt than shame, and more likely to take corrective or redemptive action.

Read my article, The Secret of Self-Esteem

Neel Burton is the author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, For Better For Worse: Should I Get Married? and other books.

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Neel Burton
Source: Neel Burton