Guilt & Shame: What’s the Difference?
Do you know the difference between guilt and shame?
You may think guilt and shame are the same feelings, however, they are vastly different.
While guilt is a result of a perceived wrong, shame is a powerful emotion that deeply affects us.
Guilt vs. Shame
Guilt is when you did (or perceived you did) something wrong. Specifically, guilt relates to an action, rather than yourself. You can experience healthy and unhealthy guilt.
For example, say you borrowed money from a friend a week ago and didn’t pay it back, even though you said you would right away. You feel guilty and this causes you to pay the money back and apologize for the delay.
Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling that you are bad. It focuses on the behavior and self, not specifically on the mistake or event. Shame assumes that you are wrong. It is an internalized feeling of being fundamentally flawed. Shame doesn’t rely upon having done a particular action. Rather, it focuses on the belief that you are inadequate as a person.
Shame is “I am bad.”
Guilt is “I did something bad.”
How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?”
How many of you would be willing to say that?
Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake.
Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.
Shame & Mental Health
Feeling guilty typically results in trying to make up for our actions and moving forward, which is a potentially positive outcome. Healthy guilt allows us to correct a wrong and seek forgiveness. Therefore, it can be helpful.
However, when it comes to shame, there is not a clear path forward. Since shame assumes you are wrong, it offers no steps toward feeling better. In contrast, it can have the opposite effect. Shame can cause low self-esteem, disconnection, and avoidance and lead to many destructive behaviors. Some mental health problems that can stem from shame include:
Related: How to Build Your Self-Esteem
Related: Coping With Suicidal Thoughts
Therapy & Shame
Understanding the difference between guilt and shame can be worked through in therapy. Healthy coping skills such as developing self-compassion to shift away from negative self-judgments can be learned over time.
Rebecca Sanders, DBT and Outpatient Therapist at Nystrom & Associates offers a tip when it comes to combatting shame. “The opposite action of shame (if it fits the facts) is to face the music, repair what needs to be repaired and make a commitment to try not to repeat the action that brought us to shame.”
A Word From Nystrom & Associates
Guilt and shame can be tricky to deal with on your own. With the help of a trained mental health professional, you can work through these emotions and learn to take control of your life.