You have just thoughtlessly blurted out an offhand comment at a large social gathering, inadvertently insulting someone you know and like. A brief hush falls as this social nightmare unfolds. Embarrassed glances shoot your way. What do you feel?
We are moral animals, with unique access to an immediate emotional sense of doing or being wrong. In guilt, we feel bad for a person harmed by our actions. When guilty, there is an instinct to apologize or make amends for our acts. In states of shame, on the other hand, we feel a shrinking private sense of deficiency, inadequacy, or badness. Shame gives rise to motivations to hide, assign blame, or lash out angrily.
The social scenario above is likely to mobilize either or both feelings. There might be a guilty sense of having caused offense to another person. The guilty minds-eye harbors images of the person insulted, replete with fantasies of the person tearful, humiliated, and deeply hurt by the offending comments. Your guilty self will generally tend to magnify the level of harm inflicted by your remark. How can you make it up to her?
But in addition to the guilty feeling, there may be a cringing, shameful feeling, an inner voice crying out, how could I have said this? You wish you could suddenly disappear or sink into the floor. You begin to think, "What’s wrong with me—why do I always put my foot in it?" Even though this perception is untrue in general, in a state of shame, you might tend to see yourself unrealistically as a chronic, irredeemable screw-up.
Perhaps you also begin to notice an irritable dislocation of the shame affect with a sudden need to blame someone or something else. Why do we need to walk on eggshells around her—surely she’s said things just as bad? Ruefully, you might even begin to focus on the negative qualities of the person you offended.
When given psychological tests with scenarios like the one above, some people reliably tend to report guilty reactions (guilt-proneness), while others default to responses relating to the experience and management of shame (shame-proneness). Research shows that the psychological characteristics of guilt- versus shame-prone people are different in important ways.
Your answers to the following questions can help you determine whether you are more guilt-prone or shame-prone. If you answer “yes” to more of the first five questions (1-5), you may tend to be more guilt-prone. If you answer “yes” to more of the latter five questions (6-10), you may tend to be more shame-prone.
You might identify with some from both categories, but generally, your answers will tend to cluster in one category or the other. (Of course, this is not a formal, standardized psychological test, just a guide to help you better understand yourself).
1. Do you tend to apologize excessively?
2. Do you have an exaggerated sense of your ability to harm others?
3. Do you feel unreasonably responsible for other people’s happiness or welfare?
4. Do you feel like you don’t deserve your own happiness?
5. Do you feel better after you “confess” your imagined misdeeds to a friend or partner?
6. Do you find yourself preoccupied with assigning blame?
7. Do you often feel angry or victimized without knowing exactly why?
8. Do you struggle with a sense of self-esteem that can swing suddenly from low to high?
9. Do you find yourself preoccupied with envying others?
10. Do you avoid talking about your failures or insecurities to avoid ridicule or criticism?
What do these questions have to do with shame or guilt-proneness? Shame and guilt are related, but they are different emotions. When teaching the distinction to students, I explain that one essential difference is that guilt is about ”doing,” while shame is about “being.”
Guilt Is About Doing
If you identified with questions 1-5, the issue might be a hidden belief that by living, succeeding, or having rewarding relationships, you are “doing” something harmful to others. For guilty people, these ”pathogenic beliefs” (mostly unconscious, maladaptive, irrational beliefs) can develop in childhood as the result of messages received from, or ways we are treated by, parents and caretakers (Weiss, 1993).
For the guilt-prone person, any sign of suffering or discontent in others can trigger a desire to take responsibility for the discomfort. A colleague of mine calls this “negative grandiosity,” an unrealistic sense of the self as powerful in its ability to influence negative events. Psychologists used to refer to guilt-prone people as “neurotic.”
The guilty tend to second-guess themselves compulsively and worry about their impact on others. While unpleasant, there is a healthy side to guilt. Because guilt is associated with affiliative behavior (wanting to make amends or help others), research on guilt-prone people indicates that compared to the shame-prone, they are less depressed and angry, and more able to feel empathy for others.
Shame Is About Being
If you found yourself identifying with questions 6-10, you may struggle with managing shame, associated with confusion about who you are, and your sense of value. In shameful states of mind (Zaslav, 1998), the self is perceived as small, weak, and bad in relation to disapproving others, real or imagined. Shame-proneness can develop with early childhood neglect, abuse, or abandonment. It has been linked to depressive, anxiety, and addictive disorders.
For those vulnerable to the shameful implosion of self-regard, any setback, criticism, or disappointment can feel like a global verdict on the very adequacy or goodness of the self. When something feels wrong, someone must be to blame. Often, there is a mental dialogue where blame swings, pendulum-like, between self (negative self-attribution) and resentful projections onto external forces, ridding the self of the deflating quality.
When we think of a narcissist, hubristic and boastful, we imagine a person immune to shame. But at its core, narcissism can be seen as shame-proneness taken to its extreme, with the entire personality organized around warding off shameful deflation. There is a side to most narcissists that is seldom revealed: shameful episodes of self-doubt and bitter resentment at a world that does not offer adequate appreciation.
In envy, a core narcissistic trait, attention shifts to an external object seen as immune to some shameful quality in the envier. At the same time, there is a hostile component to envy, with a need to demean the envied object in order to lessen the perceived distance between self and other. Research shows that as a result of this and other processes, shame-prone people feel angrier, are more likely to interpret the actions of others negatively, and express anger in more destructive ways than primarily guilty people.
What Does It Mean?
We are rarely conscious of it, apart from dramatic scenarios like the one beginning this article, but we continually experience and manage aspects of guilt and shame. Identifying your core issue on this continuum can help you make sense of chronic, confusing, self-sabotaging traits. If these problems are serious or disabling, looking at yourself from this perspective may be a first step in obtaining help.
If you opt for treatment, predictable patterns may emerge in ways you tend to relate to a psychotherapist. If you are guilt-prone, your impulse might be to protect or take care of the therapist. An experienced therapist will explicitly give you permission to get the help you need without worrying about burdening or overwhelming him or her.
If you are shame-prone, you might periodically imagine or experience disapproval from the therapist. A competent therapist will help you learn to open up about these fears and accept help without projecting harsh self-judgment.
Weiss, J. (1993). How Psychotherapy Works, Guilford, New York
Zaslav, M. (1998). Shame-Related States of Mind in Psychotherapy, J. of Psychotherapy Practice and Research; 7:154-166.