Guilt or shame: what is the difference between these two emotions?


Do you look back on moments in your life and feel a sense of guilt for certain past experiences? A feeling that somehow you didn’t do a good enough job or behave in a certain way?

What if I told you that what you might be feeling about this moment in time is not guilt but in fact, shame….

There seems to be a lot of confusion when it comes to what ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ actually mean. The word ‘guilt’ is often used to describe a feeling of regret for a situation. Yet on further exploration this feeling is attached to a sense of vulnerability caused by past events, and at the root of vulnerability is shame.

I will explain this further, but to begin with it may help to look at these two emotions in the following way:

Guilt means “I have done something bad”

Shame means “I am bad”

For example, if as a child you put your hand up to ask a question in class and the other children made fun of you this will have likely left you with an uncomfortable feeling about asking questions later on in life. Furthermore, you may be inclined to think that this is a feeling of guilt, i.e. your thought process might be, “I feel guilty whenever I need to ask for more information”. But what the actions of the children in class resulted in was actually a sense of vulnerability around asking questions which in turn has left you with a feeling of shame, rather than guilt. In this situation you did nothing wrong by putting your hand up, you were just made to feel like you did.

However, it is entirely possible that a particular incident can bring up both feelings of guilt and shame. An example of this would be if your actions directly caused harm to another person when you may feel guilty (which would be entirely appropriate), and yet you might also be shamed for your actions by others. It may be useful to notice that while true feelings of guilt can also come with feelings of shame, shame itself does not necessarily equal guilt.

An understanding of guilt 

The reason it’s important to understand which of these two emotions you are feeling is that they have different ways of being alleviated. For feelings of guilt the antidote is to acknowledge the harmful behaviour that was carried out, take responsibility for your actions (by apologising perhaps) and equally as important, understanding what motivated you to act in that way in the first place and to find a different solution in future. For example, you may have made fun of someone, in a misguided attempt to connect with them and with this understanding you can start to explore how you can gain that connection in a less harmful way in the future. If you suppress guilt, rather than go through this process to alleviate it you feelings can escalate into: denial, blame, projection or shame. So we can see how guilt can often come hand in hand with shame.

An understanding of shame 

Shame itself can be felt in two different ways. Firstly, you can be shamed by another person and in this case the antidote to this is to set a boundary with that person without shaming them in return. However, that can be easier said than done!

I can remember a time when I was having a riding lesson from my mum and I couldn’t quite get the hang of something. I reacted to the way she was talking to me by shouting “if you’re so clever you get on and do it”. This reaction was the result of feeling shamed for not being able to achieve what was being asked of me and caused me to attempt to project that shame back on to her. In this situation a more productive way of setting the boundary could have been to say “Please don’t speak to me in that tone of voice, I realise I can’t get the hang of this jump, but it would be really helpful if you got on and demonstrated what you would like me to do”.

Another way you can experience shame is when you critique yourself for a way of being – perhaps you are five minutes late to a meeting (even though you are rarely late) and you feel shame, because in the past you were chastised on an occasion when you arrived late. Here the only antidote is to have compassion for yourself, acknowledge where that feeling comes from and decide whether you do need to take steps to change your way of being or simply to give yourself a break!  Being five minutes late is not a sign that you are a bad person.

Compassion is the way through

Being compassionate with yourself may not be something that comes naturally as, sadly, it’s not something we are generally taught from childhood, even though many of us are taught to have compassion for others. This means that shame is often one of the hardest emotions to feel and overcome. However, if we suppress feelings of shame it can lead us into feelings of despair, blame, rejection, self loathing or bullying. Perhaps those children who made fun of you for raising your hand to ask questions had themselves been shamed for the same thing at some point? Learning to be kind to yourself is vital in situations of shame. If you are currently struggling to work through your own feelings of shame around a situation you may be interested to read one of my previous blogs, Shame – The Only Way Out is Through.

If this blog has helped you to recognise areas that are causing you to feel guilt or shame and you would like to explore this in more depth and work through these difficult emotions then I would be very happy to discuss this with you on a call, and share how my coaching can help you. You can get in touch with me to arrange this by visiting my contact page.

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