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Embarrassment

What Is the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?

Guilt can help you understand and change your shame.

Key points

  • Guilt and shame are different emotions that are often woven into one another.
  • You can use your guilty feelings to undo your shame.
  • Shame may be a way of avoiding guilt or responsibility

“I can’t tell anyone that I had COVID,” a client said early last summer. When I asked why, she said, “Because I’m so ashamed. I knew I wasn’t being careful enough. Everyone is going to blame me for it.”

 milkos/123rf
Source: milkos/123rf

The Difference Between Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are often confused, but they are actually different emotions that are also often woven into one another.

Shame, which has recently been highlighted as a pandemic-related emotion, is a painful sense of being fundamentally bad. Andrew Morrison wrote in his book The Culture of Shame that shame feels like a weight that presses us down emotionally and physically and makes us want to “sink into the ground,” disappear, or become invisible, simply because it makes us feel inferior, incompetent, and generally bad. It is accompanied by feelings of self-criticism and fear of being criticized by others. In her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brené Brown described the link to poor self-esteem and feelings of vulnerability, self-doubt, and a sense of unworthiness.

Guilt, on the other hand, is an internal response to something you have done or something you haven’t done, often something that goes against your personal code of ethics. As I discuss in a recent PT post, you can often fix or repair something that you feel guilty about. Even if you can’t repair it directly, changing your behavior or paying the reparation forward can alleviate guilt. You cannot atone for or fix shame, because even when it’s focused on something specific, like your appearance or your dyslexia, shame colors your whole identity, your presence in the world.

I wrote some years ago in another PT post about some of the things that you can do to make yourself feel better when you feel shame.

Addressing Guilt to Help You Understand and Overcome Shame

Sometimes paying more attention to your guilty feelings can help you understand and get over your shame.

Bryan,* for example, felt tremendous shame about what he saw as his failures in life: He was not married, did not have children, and was not particularly successful in his career. But much of his shame had been redirected to anger and frustration. We talked a lot about his anger toward his family, who he felt never gave him credit for the things he had succeeded in.

Unfortunately, Bryan’s combined shame and anger also interfered with his ability to take responsibility for the things he could do to change his life. He was, for instance, very talented with numbers. His employer had told him they would like to promote him to a better-paying position, but that he would need to get a particular license for them to do so. Bryan was enraged and stormed out of the office. In a session with me later that day, he was too ashamed of his behavior to take responsibility for it. “I just couldn’t help it,” he told me. “They made me so angry.”

As we explored what had occurred, Bryan began to realize that his shame was also threaded through with feelings of guilt. “I feel so bad about walking out on my supervisor,” he said. “I mean, it was embarrassing and unprofessional. but she hadn’t even done anything wrong. In fact, my bosses were offering me something good. What’s the matter with me that I couldn’t take that in?”

By asking that question, a familiar one to anyone struggling with shame, Bryan was redirecting the therapy to familiar, comfortable, albeit unpleasant, territory. I said, “Would you mind if we don’t go down that same path for just a minute? Could you talk about what you feel about walking out instead of what’s the matter with you?”

Shifting your thoughts away from an old path is not always easy, but Bryan and I had been working together for a while, so he was able to change his direction without too much difficulty. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “I feel guilty. I keep thinking about the look on my supervisor’s face when I stormed out. Her feelings were hurt. I feel bad about that. I could keep saying I’m just a basically defective person, and in the past, I guess that would have let me off the hook for my bad behavior. But this is guilt, plain and simple. I did something I’m ashamed of, but not because I’m defective. It’s because I behaved in a way I wish I hadn’t behaved.”

Taking Genuine Responsibility for Your Behavior

Recognizing that what he had been seeing in the familiar light of his shame was, in fact, guilt over behavior he could control, was part of an important turning point for Bryan. He used his therapy session to consider ways to deal with the guilt, and, after leaving my office, he called his supervisor and apologized. In our next session, he told me that she had been incredibly gracious and had even gone so far as to brainstorm with him about the most efficient way to get the license he would need.

As Bryan continued to separate guilt and shame, he realized that some of his anger at his family was also redirected guilt. “Sometimes I think I hurt them intentionally,” he told me. “They were trying their hardest, but they weren’t giving me what I wanted from them. I was shaming them for not being the parents I wanted. But you know what? That wasn’t their fault. And now, as an adult, if I can’t realize that, then it’s on me, not on them.”

Shame and guilt, then, are different, but overlapping emotions. Shame is a negative sense of who you are as a person. It has to do with how you feel about yourself, your self-esteem, and your identity. Guilt is how you feel about something you have done that goes against your own ethics or beliefs. When you feel guilty about something, you might also feel shame, but it usually is a reaction to having behaved in a way that contradicts your beliefs. Taking genuine responsibility for your behavior can diminish or even eliminate shame. When you take responsibility without beating yourself up, you develop a sense of agency, power, and strength, which can help counter feelings of defectiveness and badness. The combination of taking genuine responsibility and making reparation for things you have done can be a powerful way to fight shame.

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.

Copyright@fdbarth2022

References

Brené Brown: I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)

Andrew Morrison: The Culture of Shame

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