Shame vs Guilt

No one likes shame or guilt, yet they’re emotions we (nearly) all feel. They are often used interchangeably, which isn’t great. Though both the emotions share the same social-evaluation-driven backbone – they’re vastly different. Let’s unravel the shame/guilt knot.

The basics

Similarities between shame & guilt
  • Both shame & guilt are uncomfortable, negative & distressing emotions
  • Shame & guilt are secondary emotions, in that they form second to the basic ones (anger, sadness, fear, disgust) – internalised anger is at the core of both emotions
  • We tend to learn shame & guilt (also pride) around age 3 (Muris & Meesters, 2014) as they are complex emotions – we need to have already developed certain cognitive abilities (such as self-awareness) in order to feel shame or guilt
  • We learn shame, guilt & pride interpersonally, because they are self-conscious emotions (we evaluate ourselves through the eyes of others)
  • As social beings, the evolutionary benefit of both emotions is that we learn what behaviour is reinforced (pride), and punished (shame or guilt) by our family, education system, society etc. (Shen, 2018).
  • Shame, guilt & pride are inherently moral emotions (Sheikh & Janoff-Bulman, 2010)- we cast judgement on ourselves based on our internalised cultural norms and values of what is good or bad behaviour
Differences between shame & guilt

Shame is “I’ve done something bad, therefore I’m bad.”

  • Shame blames the core self (internal attribution)
  • Unlike guilt, shame is not repairable (Bunkers, 2018) – it makes us think, “there’s no action that can change me from being a bad person”
  • Regrettably, shame is isolating. When we feel shame, we look down & our chest collapses; we hide ourselves. We think we are bad, unlovable, worthless – therefore not good enough for others
  • Low self-esteem = feeling bad, with self-attack (shame)
  • If our parents were neglectful or abusive, we tend to think something is wrong with us that our parents are acting that way (because children developmentally need to see their parents as right and good)
  • Narcissists are so afraid of shame, they don’t take any responsibility (appropriate guilt) so they act shamelessness

Guilt is “I’ve done something bad, my behaviour was bad – so I want to repair.”

  • Guilt blames the behaviour (global attribution)
  • Healthy guilt is repairable, in that we can make up for our mistake and learn about our behaviour (Onwezen, Bartels & Antonides, 2014)
  • Interpersonally guilt helps us recognise when our behaviour is wrong, and when we make amends we can become closer with those around us
  • Healthy self-esteem = feeling bad, but without self-attack (guilt)

How to work with shame?

Shame is learnt interpersonally. So it is also healed… interpersonally.

1. As scary as it is, when we share what we feel shameful of to a trusted person, we are able to let go of its secrecy & the aloneness we have with it.

2. When they still accept us (better even when they confide in a similar experience), we learn that we are still loveable, even if we made a mistake.

3. Then our emotional state moves from shame to guilt.

** The more shame we clean up, the easier it is to move from shame to guilt in our daily emotional regulation.

4. We make amends for our behaviour, if possible – so we move shame into repaired guilt!

How to work with guilt?

Address & repair what we can.

1. Acknowledge the wrongdoing, and what role we played. Share this with the person our mistake affected.

2. Make reparations, apologise and learn from this, as to not repeat the mistake.

References

Bunkers, S. S. (2018). Shame on You. Nursing Science Quarterly31(2), 109–110. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894318418755737

Muris, P., & Meesters, C. (2014). Small or big in the eyes of the other: on the developmental psychopathology of self-conscious emotions as shame, guilt, and pride. Clinical child and family psychology review17(1), 19–40. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-013-0137-z

Sheikh, S., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (2010). The “Shoulds” and “Should Nots” of Moral Emotions: A Self-Regulatory Perspective on Shame and Guilt. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin36(2), 213–224. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167209356788

Shen, L. (2018). The evolution of shame and guilt. PloS One13(7), e0199448–e0199448. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0199448

Onwezen, M. C., Bartels, J., & Antonides, G. (2014). The self-regulatory function of anticipated pride and guilt in a sustainable and healthy consumption context. European Journal of Social Psychology44(1), 53–68. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.1991

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