Strong Leaders Experience Guilt Without Shame

Guilt and shame may seem related, but they point to different outcomes.

Posted Feb 11, 2019

Many of us learn exactly what guilt is all about from our parents and how they made us feel when we failed to live up to their expectations or complete the chores they assigned to us. Guilt, though, may be pushed out by shame, in some instances. Both guilt and shame are unsettling emotions to feel, for most of us. But there’s some interesting research that suggests that these somewhat similarly unpleasant emotions arise from different states of self-evaluation and self-awareness.

Guilt vs. Shame

Shame is often experienced when we are made to feel like we are less than we should be—it’s characterized by a negative self-assessment and related feelings of worthlessness. When a parent is upset that a child’s forgotten to complete an assigned chore, like taking out the trash, she might berate the child with something like, “You’re such a loser! You can’t even take care of this one simple chore.” These are the kind of words that can lead to shame, rather than guilt. It’s not the task that went undone—or any repercussion from the incomplete task—that is being highlighted, it’s the child’s sense of competence and self-worth that is being attacked.

When a parent focuses on the task itself, and not the child who was expected to complete the task, the result can be much different. If a parent sees the trashcan still full and decides to empty it herself, then mentions to the child that she had spent time taking care of the task herself, the child will be a lot more likely to feel guilt for not completing the chore rather than shame due to being made to feel bad about herself as a person.

Shame leads us to feel powerless and small and this further limits our sense of agency and faith in ourselves to succeed. It also keeps us "hung up" on ourselves and our feelings of inadequacy. The more we dwell on negative feelings, the more likely we are to let them overtake us and get us mired deeper into self-degradation. Ruminating on thoughts about what losers we are tends to reinforce behaviors that cause us to actually feel like and look like losers.

Guilt doesn’t really feel “good,” but it keeps us focused on our value to others and others’ positive expectations of us, not their negative beliefs about us. Researchers (Zhu et al., 2018) have found that shame is an emotion that occurs in a place in the brain related to self-referential processing, meaning that shame is not about the “other guy,” it’s about our own self-worth. Guilt, however, triggers the part of the brain associated with empathy with others. When we let someone down, we are focused on the relationship and our recognition of how our actions (or lack thereof) may have left someone else feeling. We are focused on others’ feelings and experiences, not our own. That's one of the reasons that guilt may be a sign of leadership potential. 

Shameful Secrets or Guilty Secrets?

Slepian, Kirby, and Kalokerinos (2019) have just released a study that indicated that shameful secrets are more likely to lead us to feel bad about ourselves than guilty secrets. When we feel shame about something we’ve done, we’re probably much more reticent to speak about it or acknowledge it in such a way that we can rectify our mistakes. Guilt, however, is much more of an actionable emotion—when we feel guilt, we are more motivated to undo any damage we’ve done or try to make up for our errors.

Can Guilt Be a Positive Thing?

Actually, having a tendency to feel guilt and to admit guilt about your actions may be an indicator of your leadership ability (Schaumberg & Flynn, 2012). In three related studies, guilt was explored in relation to perceptions of individuals as leaders. The researchers found that people who were prone to guilt actually tended to be viewed as stronger natural leaders. If you feel a sense of responsibility for the welfare of others, you are more likely to emerge as a leader among others and to naturally be perceived as the leader in a group. When you are able to feel empathy for others and to be aware of the role that your actions can play in the fortunes or well-being of others, it gives a good indication that you may rise into leadership positions if your actions are also attuned to this awareness.

Guilt Isn't So Bad, If You Keep It in Check

Guilt that is debilitating, of course, is not going to move you up in the ranks. It may be the trait that actually keeps you from positive movement. Leaders must also be able to move forward and take action even when a successful outcome isn’t guaranteed and there is risk involved. Strong leaders take reasonable risks and take responsibility for their decisions. Leaders who earn the respect of their team members are leaders who are willing to acknowledge their mistakes. They learn from their mistakes and use this new knowledge to inform future actions. They don’t respond with shame to failure, they use it as a learning opportunity.

In closing, remind yourself that shame is a very self-serving and debilitating emotion. Shame makes us want to hide from the world and feel sorry for ourselves. Guilt may leave us feeling a little dysphoric, but it’s a lot more likely to motivate us to take positive action to undo whatever harm our actions—or inaction—may have caused.

References

Schaumberg, R. L., & Flynn, F. J. (2012). Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown: The link between guilt proneness and leadership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(2), 327-342. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0028127

Slepian, Michael, J.N. Kirby, and E.K. Kalokerinos. Shame, guilt, and secrets on the mind. Emotion, 2019.

Zhu, R., Wu, H., Xu, Z., Tang, H., Shen, X., Mai, X., & Liu, C. (2019). Early distinction between shame and guilt processing in an interpersonal context, Social Neuroscience, 14:1, 53-66, DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2017.1391119