When we think about feelings we experience we typically categorize them into positive or negative and on a continuum: happy, sad, excited angry, fearful, etc. Shame and guilt are two emotions that tend to fall into the negative category, as they can be uncomfortable and unpleasant to experience. Shame and guilt often get confused as being the same emotion however they are in fact different. It is important to be able to comprehend how these two emotions are both similar and different in order to better understand our experiences so that we can address and cope with them appropriately.
Guilt: A feeling of remorse or regret that is associated with something we have done. Guilt is a response we experience that is based on our behaviors and choices which typically involves the violation of values, beliefs, or standards of ourselves or of other people. Because we are human and make mistakes, it can be expected and normal for each of us to feel guilty from time to time. Guilt can influence us to consider making changes in order to avoid or prevent future instances of it.
Shame: The feeling or perception of inadequacy when we think about ourselves in relation to others. Shame is linked to our self-esteem, or how we view ourselves, and is associated with worthlessness and feelings of failure. Shame is typically a response we experience when we feel insulted, put down, or blamed by significant people in our lives (parents, siblings, partners, friends, etc.) and we receive messages that we are bad or not worthy.
In other words, guilt = a feeling associated with something we did and shame = a feeling associated with who we perceive ourselves to be.
Now that the primary differences between shame and guilt have been identified, hopefully it makes sense for why each emotion needs to be treated differently.
In order to resolve feelings of guilt we can examine the behavior that caused it, seek forgiveness from others as well as ourselves, and focus on clarifying our values in order to prevent poor choices from recurring. In order to resolve feelings of shame, we need to peel back the layers that contribute to our core beliefs about the world and ourselves. We can then begin to challenge and reframe our perceptions so they are more in line with how we want to be perceived.
Guilt and shame can be very powerful emotions and if we allow them to go unmanaged, it can lead to irrational and unrealistic thinking, feelings of depression and anxiety, social isolation, substance abuse, and health problems. Therefore if you experience feelings of guilt or shame or think they are negatively impacting your functioning, don’t hesitate to reach out to others to talk or consider seeking professional help.