Guilt and shame often go hand in hand, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same thing. While guilt is a response to a specific event or behavior, shame affects how you feel about yourself. Learning the difference between guilt and shame by yourself or in online therapy can help you to understand and cope with your feelings.
What is the difference between shame and guilt? Even though these words are sometimes used interchangeably, the emotions they describe are distinct.
Shame is a negative feeling about who you are as a person. Someone who struggles with shame may believe that they’re a bad person or that they don’t deserve to feel happiness. People often experience shame when they fall short of the person they want to be.
Guilt describes feelings of responsibility or remorse over action or inaction. While people may have guilty feelings after they make mistakes or hurt others, it’s also possible to have guilt over things outside your control.
Even though guilt is a negative emotion, it plays an important role in shaping behavior. People tend to feel guilty when they believe they’ve done something bad or wrong. Guilt is usually a response to actions or behaviors, but some people experience it when they believe they’re responsible for something they didn’t do.
A specific event can trigger shame, but a person’s feelings about themselves ultimately cause it. While guilt can lead to shame, shame is about more than remorse or regret. When someone experiences shame, they believe there’s something wrong with who they are as a person.
Neither guilt nor shame is all that uncommon or unusual, and we know that certain experiences can cause us to have either feeling excessively. While guilt is a self-regulatory emotion, research tells us that guilt and shame have been linked to certain other mental health conditions, for example, major depressive disorder (MDD). Yet another example of where guilt might stem from is how victims of trauma may struggle with survivor’s guilt.
Shame is typically rooted in insecurities, but this self-doubt can come from many places. People often internalize negative experiences, which can lead to chronic shame. When someone has dealt with physical or emotional abuse, for example, it’s common for them to have high levels of shame.
“Guilt is often an important guidepost to let us know that we have acted outside of our values, and it can lead to positive behavior change. Shame, however, tends to keep us stuck in secrecy and self-doubt. Shame cannot be a precursor to self-improvement.”
– Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT
Although the root causes of these feelings can vary, identifying the sources of your emotions can provide you with valuable insights. You’ll be better equipped to challenge your feelings when you have a clearer understanding of why you’re dealing with guilt or shame.
Guilt and shame are both self-conscious emotions that most people will experience at some point over the course of their lives. If you want to learn the difference between guilt and shame, it’s important to understand that while people may have these emotions at the same time, studies show that people have different reactions to guilt vs. shame.
Signs of guilt
Worrying about making the wrong decision
Fixating on a specific action or event
Feeling responsible for other people
Having unusually high empathy
Signs of shame
Believing that you’re a bad person or fundamentally flawed
“Renowned ‘researcher-storyteller’ Dr. Brené Brown has dedicated decades to researching shame. She has identified that the antidote to shame is empathy. If you are struggling with feelings of shame and self-judgment, consider finding a therapist who can help you move closer towards empathy and self-compassion.”
– Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT
We’ve already determined that shame and guilt are common emotions, but just because many people experience them doesn’t mean that they’re not potentially devastating. In fact, left untreated, shame and guilt have the potential to become debilitating. If you’ve been dealing with guilt, shame, or both, there are several tips that help you cope.
Learn to recognize your feelings
Even if you can tell that you’re distressed, it isn’t always easy to identify the emotion that you’re dealing with. Asking questions like what is the difference between shame and guilt can make you more aware of both emotions and what they feel like. Pay close attention to what you feel so that you can recognize and identify harmful thought patterns as soon as possible.
Challenge negative emotions
Don’t be afraid to question your feelings or think about where they came from. Try to reframe negative thoughts and look at things from a different perspective. When you look at your emotions more closely, you may discover ways to overcome them.
Find potential triggers
If you’re frequently struggling with guilt or shame, try to identify potential triggers for your feelings. Keeping a journal for your mental health can help you to learn to identify and anticipate negative thoughts and behavior patterns related to your guilt or shame. When you know what your triggers are, you’ll have more control over your emotions. You might even be able to begin to avoid certain triggers altogether when you’re feeling vulnerable.
Identify harmful thought patterns
Certain patterns of thinking, such as overgeneralization or blowing issues out of proportion, can contribute to feeling guilty or ashamed. These thought patterns are sometimes referred to as cognitive distortions. Once you learn to recognize them, you can break the cycle and reframe or redirect your thoughts.
Take a time out
You shouldn’t ignore your feelings, but it’s okay to take a break when you’re overwhelmed. If you’ve been dealing with extreme emotions, and you feel like you’re at your limit, try going for a walk or watching a movie. Give yourself a chance to calm down so that you can address your emotions in a healthy and effective way.
Show yourself compassion
Even if you’re nice to others, it can be hard to show that same kindness to yourself. Try to catch yourself when you’re being overly critical or engaging in negative self-talk. Whether you start reciting daily affirmations, keep a gratitude journal, take time to practice self-care, or even just give yourself a hug, a little self-compassion can go a long way.
Seek professional help
A powerful emotion like guilt or shame isn’t always easy to manage. If either painful feeling negatively impacts your life, you may want to work with a mental health professional. Whether you’re dealing with excessive guilt or struggling with shame, your feelings are coming from somewhere. Therapy can help you understand your emotions so that you can move forward.
Struggling with feelings of guilt or shame can be overwhelming. At Talkspace, our online therapy platform makes seeking help convenient and affordable. You can connect with a therapist who can provide you with insight and support that helps you navigate your feelings. When you have professional support, you can find ways to combat and overcome guilt and shame so you can live a full, rewarding life where you’re in control of your emotions rather than letting them control you.
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