Is There a Difference Between Shame and Guilt?


Is There a Difference Between Shame and Guilt?

By: Vanessa Gonzalez


Guilt and shame – these words are often used interchangeably. While they both, by definition, are negative feelings we may have as a response to our actions and behavior, they are two separate words for a reason and have two different meanings.


  • Guilt – a feeling of responsibility you experience when you did something wrong – whether real or imagined. Typically, it’s related to a specific action like making a mistake, committing an offense, or hurting someone (either intentionally or unintentionally). When experiencing shame, someone can acknowledge their mistake, see their part in the situation, and understand that their mistakes are not their identity.
  • Shame – a feeling that your whole self is wrong. For example, you may feel that you are bad, not a good person, or undeserving of happiness or something good. We relate ourselves to others’ opinions rather than a specific event. Shame creates a feeling that things are character flaws and integral parts of who they are. So, they are unable to see themselves separate from their actions.


Like shame, guilt can create a whirlwind of thoughts of how you have failed or caused harm and can result in distressing emotions such as anger, sadness, or anxiety. However, if worked through and resolved, guilt can be healthy. This is because guilt implies you are an inherently good person who has done something bad.


On the other hand, shame can cause an intense feeling about the self where you feel you have failed to live up to your own or someone else’s standards. Shame implies that you see yourself as an inherently bad person. Shame is unhealthy and can lead to a loss of self-esteem and self-worth when unresolved. Overall, both feelings can be unpleasant.


Here are some examples of guilt vs. shame:

Guilt Shame
I feel bad about closing the door on that person I’m a bad person and inconsiderate for not holding the door open
It as wrong of me to cheat on them I’m undeserving of a loving relationship
This outfit is unflattering on me I’m ugly and don’t deserve to have a good time
I did horrible on that exam I’m an idiot and not smart at all


Unlike guilt, shame is about who you are as a person and not separate from actions even though it can come from outside sources. Overall, the difference between guilt and shame is essential. Guilt can be healthy because it helps us recognize and correct problematic or harmful behavior.


At the same time, shame says that the person is the problem, not the behavior. In shame, our behavior is just further proof that reinforces our negative thoughts. Everyone experiences these emotions. Some may experience it more than others, but you can learn to handle both feelings and respond to them effectively.


What are some negative effects of shame?


  • Decreases self-esteem – If you are experiencing prolonged shame, you tend to think that every negative action reflects who you are and reinforces those negative thoughts. As a result, no matter how big or small the mistake, you feel worse about yourself and who you are.
  • May lead to more problematic behavior – Those who experience shame may blame their personality for their behavior or blame others. Since they believe they cannot change, they are less likely to have a problem-solving attitude. Thus, it can be difficult t build and maintain meaningful relationships with others.
  • Create a sense of hopelessness – Those who experience feelings of shame can feel hopeless and feel powerless to change. For example, you may give up on trying to be a good person, isolate yourself from others to hide your shame, and may become depressed. It’s easier to change your actions vs. who you are. So, you may be hopeless that you’ll ever be able to change who you are, so you don’t change your actions as a result.


How to move passed these feelings?


However, you can change your feelings regarding guilt and shame. People change their inherent behavior and improve how they view themselves and can move past these feelings. While it may be hard work, it can be done. Here are some things to consider next time you may feel shame and how to move past it.


  1. Acknowledge the feeling – For us to move beyond shame, we need to fully acknowledge and accept what we are feeling. Whether it’s sharing it with a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional, we need to acknowledge it to move past it.
  2. Remember, you are not what you do or feel – If our self-worth is attached to what we do, then we have put our self-esteem and happiness into the hands of others. If your entire identity isn’t on the line and shaped by what we do, then you’ll be freer to grow as an individual. In turn, your self-worth and self-esteem will be less affected, thus reducing feelings of shame.
  3. Recognized what triggers your shame – When you start to notice feelings of shame, explore what triggered it by asking yourself questions like: Did someone say or do something that made you feel less than or vulnerable? Was there an event that happened where you felt continuous shame following it? What thoughts are coming up as you feel shameful?
  4. Practice self-compassion – Self-compassion seems easy to do but can be very difficult, especially when we don’t believe we deserve anything other than shame. So instead, talk to yourself and treat yourself with the same kindness you treat another loved one. When you treat yourself like you are valuable, you can notice that your thoughts and feelings about yourself are to follow suit.


No matter how much you may think you deserve it, no amount of shame will make you feel better. Don’t hesitate to reach out. You are deserving of compassion, just like everyone else. You may need support from a mental health professional if your feelings of shame are too debilitating.


Looking for counseling for guilt, shame, trauma, and other mental health concerns in Jupiter? Call us to schedule your first therapy appointment.

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