Shame and guilt are often used interchangeably in our casual conversations to describe uncomfortable feelings. Although it can be difficult to separate them, psychological research has shown they are distinct and can serve different purposes.
Shame has been described as a painful emotion involving feelings of powerlessness that can make a person want to disappear. It is an emotion directed towards the whole self, often involving components of anger, anxiety and disgust.
In contrast, guilt, is typically thought of as an emotion directed towards one’s specific behavior. It has been suggested that feelings of guilt can typically be resolved by changing one’s behavior, seeking forgiveness and making amends.
Here is an example:
Shame: a negative emotion aimed at you as a person
“I’m such a bad person for yelling at my coworker,” or “I yelled at him/her because I am a bad person.”
Guilt: a negative emotion directed towards a specific behavior
“I feel guilty for yelling at her/him,” or “I made a mistake by yelled at my coworker.”
Guilt can be Useful
Feelings of guilt can lead to changes in behavior and these changes are often ways to repair relationships. For the example above, some reparative behaviors might be:
– Apologizing to your coworker for yelling,
– Taking active steps to improve your communication skills
– Becoming more aware of your emotions and the ways in which they may lead to yelling behavior.
Shame is Toxic
Feelings of shame can lead towards increased despair, depression, loneliness, and helplessness. It often leads to hiding and retreating. For the example above, shame may lead to:
– Avoiding your coworker in the future
– Increased distress about relationships at work
– Unproductive rumination and self-critical thoughts
– Increased thoughts about additional past mistakes leading to more intense feelings of shame
Things to do to check if you are more prone to guilt or shame:
1. Notice where you place blame or responsibility
2. Notice the language of the way you talk to yourself or others about mistakes
3. Notice your emotions and your physical sensations when you make a mistake
4. Notice whether you are drawn to actively apologize and change your behavior vs. feeling like you want to withdraw retreat or hid.
5. Talk to trusted people such as family members, friends or a therapist about shameful feelings.
People generally find psycho-therapy is a safe space to discuss shame about current behaviors or past experiences without the fear of judgment or disrupting relationships with loved ones. Therapists can help guide conversations about emotions, responsibility, and offer a private and objective space for these discussions. Consider the role that guilt or shame might be playing in your life and how you might use some of the above techniques to resolve this.