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The Surprising Upside of Guilt and Shame

Why feeling bad about yourself can motivate you to change

Guilt and shame are extremely unpleasant emotions that can cause deep psychological wounds and impact our lives in significant ways (read 10 Surprising Facts about Guilt). But a new study just published in the journal Emotion investigated something unexpected—whether such emotions might also have an upside.

Before we get into the details of the study, let’s briefly review how guilt and shame are defined and what distinguishes one from the other.

Guilt Defined: Feelings of guilt typically arise when we believe we’ve done or are about to do something that can result in harm to another person (emotionally, physically, materially or otherwise). We usually respond to feelings of guilt by refraining from taking the intended action or by making efforts to repair the relationship by apologizing and/or atoning for the harm we’ve caused. As such, an already established short-term benefit of guilt is that it helps us maintain our relationships and keep in good standing in our families and communities.

Shame Defined: Shame arises when we feel bad not just about what we’ve done but about what our actions imply about who we are. As such, shame represents a much deeper psychological wound, one in which we condemn not just our behavior but our very self. We typically respond to feelings of shame by making efforts to distance ourselves from the shame-inducing event and hiding or withdrawing in order to avoid facing the scrutiny, criticism, or scorn we anticipate from others.

In the current study, Brian Lickel from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and colleagues investigated whether guilt and shame were associated with a longer-term benefit—the motivation to change as a person.

They asked participants to write about a time when they felt shame, guilt, embarrassment or regret and to specifically describe what happened, how they responded, how they felt, and what they did afterwards. After the writing exercise, participants were asked to rate a variety of statements, among them was the extent to which they wanted to change something about who they were as people in the long term.

They found that although recalling both guilt and shame induced a certain motivation to change, that motivation was much stronger when the participants recalled a time they felt shameful than when they recalled a time they felt guilty.

In other words, self-hatred is psychologically damaging but it can also make you more motivated to change.

Indeed, that is what makes these findings somewhat surprising. Shame is usually considered a much more toxic and damaging emotion than guilt, one that can do significant damage to a person’s self-esteem and psychological health. Yet, it seems as though shame can also contribute to a positive psychological reaction—a strong motivation to change.

The question is why would shame motivate people to change more than guilt?

There are two main explanations for this finding. First, guilt tends to be a transient emotion in that once we take steps to ‘repair the damage’ by offering successful apologies (read The Five Ingredients of an Effective Apology) our guilt dissolves and with it any strong desire to change. On the other hand, shame tends to linger in our minds for weeks, months and sometimes years, providing ongoing incentive.

Second, since by definition, shame impacts our feelings about who we are as people, it makes sense that it would create motivation to change those aspects of ourselves about which we feel negatively. Since guilt relates to our actions rather than our identities, it is less likely to motivate us to embark on a substantial ‘internal renovation’ such as that associated with character change.

Because the study did not have a follow-up component, it is unclear the extent to which the motivation for change that follows shameful feelings also translates into action and actual efforts to do so down the road.

But what the study does illuminate is that psychological wounds such as guilt and shame can have a profound effect on us and impact our psychological health both in short and the long-term. Therefore, we need to pay attention to when we sustain psychological wounds and take action to treat them so they don’t ‘fester’ and become worse.

For science-based techniques for healing guilt and other emotional wounds check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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