Isn’t Guilt and Shame the same emotion? How can I tell them apart?

As people, we make mistakes all the time, but we tend to vary in the way we respond to it emotionally. Some of us feel embarrassed, angry or disappointed. Many of us feel guilt and/or shame but only few might know the differences between these two emotions. In order to tolerate, accept and learn from our mistakes, it is important and helpful to be able to separate these emotions. First off, let’s define these emotions. Here is the most commonly agreed definition:
Guilt is “I have done something wrong; therefore I FEEL bad about it”
Shame is “I have done something wrong; therefore I AM bad.”

Guilt is about feeling badly about the actions; which helps us separate our actions from our self -identity, and in turn have the motivation to change those actions. However, shame influences our view of our self as a whole. It leads us to think that it was not just “some” action I have taken that is bad, but it’s me and who I am that is bad. Shame can lead to the view of self as inadequate, inferior, and/or unworthy which are ingredients to having low self-esteem. As a result, change becomes much more challenging and daunting because now we are faced with the question of how can I change who I am at my core. Shame leads to a negative evaluation of our self whereas with guilt it is about the negative evaluation of the action. Guilt is “I made a mistake” vs. Shame is “I am a mistake.”

When shame is tied to who we are it has additional negative consequences. When feeling shame and thinking badly of ourselves we often isolate and disconnect. When guilt guides us to look at the behavior, it also allows us to reach out and repair by owning up to our actions and making amends. Therefore, guilt has a more healing power to bring us together and strengthen our connections. When you notice the differences between connections vs. disconnection, then it goes without saying that guilt is a healthy emotion where shame is unhealthy.

Now that you have a clear distinction between these two emotions here are some helpful tips:

1. When addressing a conflict, focus on your actions and take responsibility for them by saying, “OK I did say (blank) or I did do (blank).”

2. Avoid making any connection between the action and yourself, for example: do not make the conclusion that “because I did (blank), I must be (blank)” such as “because I cheated on my partner, I must be a bad person.”

3. Identify few ways you can make amends giving the context of the mistake and the relationship it affected, i.e. professional vs. personal relationship.

Part of this awareness is to look at how mistakes were handled when you were growing up? What did the process of forgiveness look like? Were there a lot of grudges and mistakes being used as ammunition? If these questions are sparking an interest, then therapy might be the right place to explore more. Let’s talk!

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