What's the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?
Shame and guilt often go hand in hand, which is why they are readily confused.
Posted March 16, 2017
[Article revised on 26 April 2020.]
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 actions against moral standards and discovering that they fall short. If our actions fall short and we fail to notice, we can ‘be shamed’ or made to notice—an extreme example being Cersei Lannister’s Walk of Shame in Game of Thrones. If having been made to notice, we do not much mind, we can be said to be shameless, or to ‘have no shame’.
In the Rhetoric, Aristotle, ever the fine psychologist, remarks that shame also arises from lacking in honourable things shared by others like us, especially if the lack is our own fault and therefore owes to our moral badness.
Finally, it is possible to feel shame vicariously, that is, to share in the shame of another person or feel shame on his or her behalf, especially if this person is closely allied or associated with us, for example, our partner, sibling, or child. Thus, even blameless people can experience shame, and so much is also true of embarrassment and other emotions. ‘Hell’ said Sartre, ‘is other people.’
Try, right now, to act out the feeling of shame. The word ‘shame’ derives from the Proto-Indo-European for ‘to cover’, and the feeling of shame 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, in so doing, inspire pity and pardon.
Even so, we may prefer to make a secret of our shame, for shame can itself be shameful—or, to be more precise, embarrassing.
People with low self-esteem, being harsher upon themselves, are more given to shame. In some cases, they may defend against shame with blame or contempt, often for the person or people who incited their shame. This is only likely to lead to deeper shame, and therefore to lower self-esteem, opening up a vicious cycle—which might be broken if, like certain politicians, they stop feeling shame at all.
While overwhelming shame can be destructive, mild to moderate shame is mostly a force for good, goading us to live 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 wearing designer clothes, driving a gas-guzzling car, or eating red meat.
Shame and guilt often go hand in hand, which is why they are so 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 desired self-image, and high levels of shame are correlated with poor psychological functioning. In particular, eating disorders and many sexual disorders can be understood as disorders of shame, as can narcissism, which may be construed as a defence against shame. Guilt on the other hand is ‘egosyntonic’, that is, consistent with our self-image, and—except in extreme cases such as that of the regicidal Lady Macbeth—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 to shame, and more likely to take corrective or redemptive action.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.