The Difference Between Shame and Guilt

According to Wikipedia, the “dividing line between the concepts of shame, guilt and embarrassment is not fully standardized.”  Many people use guilt and shame interchangeably, but from a psychological perspective, they actually refer to different experiences.   Quoting from Wikipedia:

“Psychoanalyst Helen B. Lewis argued that ‘The experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus.’  Similarly, Fossum and Mason say in their book Facing Shame that ‘While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.'”

I would go further and say that the action that inspires guilt usually involves the infliction of pain, either intentionally or unintentionally, upon another person.  As an example, in the anecdote I related in my post on envy and jealousy, I once said something hurtful at a dinner party, and on some level, I intended it to be hurtful.  Afterward, I felt guilty about my actions because I could see that I had hurt my friend.  More painfully, I also felt ashamed that I was the sort of person who would behave that way.  Guilt arose as a result of inflicting pain on somebody else; I felt shame in relation to myself.

As a therapist, I find this distinction to be  important and useful.  Many deeply troubled people have very little capacity to feel guilt, for example.  In order to feel guilt about the harm you may have done to somebody else, you must recognize him or her as a distinct individual, to begin with.  Thus a person who struggles with separation and merger issues might not feel true guilt even if he or she were to use that word to describe a feeling.  Many people who display narcissistic behavior often suffer from profound feelings of shame but have little authentic concern for other people; they don’t tend to feel genuinely guilty.  This explains why an authentic sense of guilt rarely appears in narcissistic personality disorder and anti-social personality disorder:  guilt depends upon the ability to intuit how someone else might feel and as a result to experience remorse for the pain one has caused.

When shame is especially toxic, it usually precludes feelings of genuine concern and guilt from developing; the sense of being damaged is so powerful and painful that it crowds out feeling for anyone else.  In such cases, idealization often comes into play:  other people are then viewed as perfect, the lucky ones who have the ideal shame-free life we crave; powerful envy may be the (unconscious) result.  In those cases, we might take pleasure in hurting the person we envy rather than feeling guilty about it.  I discussed this dynamic in
detail in my post about why we love and hate celebrities.

In others words, toxic shame reflects early psychological damage that impedes growth; the capacity to feel guilt depends upon that psychological growth and could be seen as emotional progress.  If the early environment is “good enough,” we develop a reliable sense of self that in turn enables us to view other people as separate and to feel concern for them.  Our ability to recognize that our own actions may have hurt someone, to empathize with that person’s pain and to feel remorse for having caused it are all signs of emotional health.

Finding Your Own Way:

Have you ever received an apology that felt as if it were more about the suffering of the apology-giver that your own?  If your forgiveness made no difference, if the person continued to berate him- or herself despite all the reassurance you offered, that would be an indication that the person felt shame rather than guilt.  A profound sense of being damaged probably motivated the apology, and for that reason, nothing you could say would have any effect.

Can you make this distinction in your own behavior?  A good place to look would be some incident where you hurt somebody and felt moved to tender an apology.  Did you imagine yourself in that person’s shoes, feel his or her pain and cringe with remorse?  Or was it your savage inner voice beating you up for making a mistake?  It’s a subtle but important distinction, reflecting the degree to which you can see people as truly separate and to feel their pain as opposed to simply feeling bad about yourself.  It’s not one or the other, of course; the mix exists along a spectrum.

There’s such a thing as appropriate guilt, just as there is appropriate shame.  Being able to tolerate and not be overwhelmed by them is a sign of mental health.

The following two tabs change content below.
Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

Latest posts by Joseph Burgo (see all)

This entry was posted in Rules of the Road, Shame/Narcissism, Social Behavior. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to The Difference Between Shame and Guilt

  1. Evan says:

    Hi Joseph. I think differently. I think shame pertains to our feelings in relation to our reference group and guilt is from us failing to live up to a rule or standard we have – usually also held by our reference but not necessarily.

    Those cultures which train children through shame rather than guilt often refer to ‘face’ and a characteristic posture of shame is hiding the face. That is: it is about our facing others.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I agree to the extent that we are talking about shaming cultures, but when I talk about shame, I almost never mean that. I am talking about the shame that is the psychic residue of early damage, not caused by cultural or parental messages from the outside. It simply is. I understand what you mean about shame cultures and I agree, but that is not what I’m talking about. I discuss this issue in my post about basic shame.

  2. Evan says:

    Fair enough.

    What I understand you to mean by basic shame is the conclusion the child draws from the bad things done to them (the conclusion that they are therefore bad). I understand how awful this is for people.

    I do think that these people experience their shame in relation to others. Hiding their face and so on. I certainly agree that it involves a perception of ourselves.

    As to guilt. I think people can feel guilt even when others aren’t damaged eg. when someone tells a lie and they disapprove of lying even though no one has been damaged by it. I do agree that it has to do with actions. And that the child’s conclusion about themselves involves a feeling about who they are as a person.

  3. A Reader says:

    As usual, interesting and highly readable.

    It made me think of the statement that we enter this world innocent and leave with a load of guilt.

    Through reading your articles I have learnt that I have had more than my share of toxic shame. Through therapy and private dreamwork it has also dawned on me that there has been a lot of reason for gilt and remorse.

    Yet I take it that it differs widely from person to person, even among the “mentally perfect” how we perceive guilt? I mean, one may consider an episode to be a triffle not worth a second thought, while another may feel deep remorse for the same thing?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      In part, guilt depends on our internal values and these differ widely among people. For example, you might have a very high standard of behavior when it comes to being considerate of other people, and as a result, feel more guilty about an instance of your insensitivity than someone with less exacting standards.

  4. Sock De Jour says:

    Perhaps I should have read this post first, before commenting on the narcissism post.

    I think shame is rooted in guilt. Guilt that we’re taught, to at ourselves with shame. Children feel no shame. It’s something that adults teach them in response to social and behavioral situations that the parent or adult disapproves of, relating their disapproval to the child, making the child feel lessened and judged for what are usually natural and normal behaviors.

    I agree that the ‘common’ definition of guilt is something we are supposed to feel in relation to an occurrence that causes discomfort or pain to others, but I don’t think in psychological terms that they are really separate. Can’t guilt be internal, not just external? Isn’t shame an unwillingness to accept yourself, forgive yourself, be kind to yourself, but instead to seek real (or perceived) fault within yourself? To my mind, that’s not a natural state, that’s something that others have imposed upon us, and we live with those outside judgments, which we then internalize and carry throughout our lives, unless we can discard them and form our own values and ideals. And if the feelings of shame stem from those outside us, who have judged us, and taught us to feel shame, then the shame isn’t ours, it’s a projection that others have placed on us. It’s the remainder of guilt we were taught to feel about ourselves, which becomes our lack of self-forgiveness for mistakes, bad judgment or errant behaviors, that others found unacceptable, and in turn, taught us to find unacceptable. Perhaps I just reject the idea of shame, because I don’t believe it’s valid, productive or worthwhile.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      As I’ve said elsewhere, I think that the type of shame you are talking about is one variety; I’ve been trying to introduce another, that I explain in more detail in other posts, including this one on basic shame.

  5. Ron Hutchison says:

    Let’s have a paragraph on the beginning situated moment of guilt and shame as a unit of experience. It seems to me that shame is initiated socially and reflects an interpersonal conflict, while guilt is initiated psychologically and reflects a mental conflict. The feeling of guilt or shame, however painful, is a reaction to the initiating moment. What say you, doc? btw, good site!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Thanks, Ron. I think there are different types of shame. The one you’re describing is the usual way we think about it, and the one that Bradshaw talks about in his books. I’m trying to introduce a different way of thinking about shame, or to discuss a different type of shame — one that doesn’t come from the outside. It is the felt knowledge that one has been damaged by one’s upbringing, that things went amiss during childhood and you’ve been damaged by it in lasting ways.

  6. Peter says:

    Thanks for that concise and insightful article. I have struggled with the meanings of guilt vs. shame for years. I have assembled quite a library. I find your definitions to be precise, and that’s quite helpful. For what it’s worth, after 10 years of therapy and more yet of self-study, your brief descriptions still struck me as profound. You know your stuff.

  7. Melissa says:

    Thank you. You have helped me here today. A light bulb has gone off in my head. I have looked at some poor choices that i have made and matched my feelings against them. Given your article, i was shocked to discover that i felt a deep sense of shame and a lesser level of guilt. As bad as i feel about this discovery, it has caused me to look at myself again critically.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That’s a good thing. Learning to face the reality of our shame is the path toward growth and self-acceptance.

  8. claire says:

    Hi Folks:

    I am interested to know if part of the healing for shameful acts is to pay a contribution to society whether it be community service, confession to one’s priest or simply to not do it again. Does the person ever really forgive oneself if they feel they could have done something more.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Forgiving oneself isn’t really the issue because you haven’t done anything wrong. That’s guilt, not shame. I don’t think that atonement of any kind will make a difference to the feelings of shame.

  9. paul says:

    What if we were taught to feel guilty but we naturally feel shame.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That’s a little condensed … I’m not sure what you mean. I think that guilt and shame both develop “naturally”, although both can be imposed from the outside, as well.

  10. Brother Michael says:

    Shame is uncomfortable feelings about who or what we ARE.
    Guilt is uncomfortable feelings about what we’ve DONE or are DOING.

  11. Alla says:

    This post leads me to understand that some feelings of remorse or discomfort that have led to my apologies in the past have stemmed from shame (not wanting to be “the kind of person who…”) rather than guilt (a true empathy for another person’s pain). However, even when I have intuitively understood this difference in the past (and I often do intuitively understand that there IS a difference ), it is not as though I could FORCE myself to truly empathize with another person’s pain. Moreover, dwelling on the separation between these two types of apology just leads to more shame — in this instance, shame for apologizing and not “truly meaning it”. I can understand intellectually that I hurt another person, but it’s not as though I can really ever feel their pain. It seems disingenuous to claim that some kinds of (healthy) apologies do not stem from a personal discomfort — guilty apologies are always inseparable from shame and are secondary to it; otherwise guilt would not become so palpably intolerable as to merit an action of apology. Even if we apologize to a friend because we realize we have hurt his feelings, the sense of “guilt” that leads to the apology stems from a sense of shame about being “the type of person who hurts a friend’s feelings”. So, are there not also healthy types of shame, that keep our selfishness in check?
    I’m not sure that shameless guilt can ever be possible, nor am I sure that this is a productive route to reducing narcissism and increasing empathy for others. I feel like the post suggests we should eradicate our own shame before we can experience true guilt. Wouldn’t this kind of increased self-analysis perpetuate the sort of self-involvement that precludes empathetic apology in the first place? Is there an alternative for increasing an awareness for other people’s feelings to concentrated self-analysis?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I don’t at all believe in “eradicating shame” in order to feel guilt, nor I do think it’s possible. You make some good points, though: I think you’re right, that guilt for hurting someone else also involves an element of shame, for being the type of person who would do so.

    • Tom Sars says:

      You regularly feel ashamed, and rarely guilty (and when you feel guilty, it’s to a minor degree); I regularly feel guilty, and rarely ashamed (and when I feel ashamed, it’s to a minor degree).

      You make the cardinal error of assuming that other think/feel as you do.

      I suggest that there are two potential motivators for a person “doing the right thing”: the avoidance of guilt and the avoidance of shame (or of course some combination of the two).

      It seems to me that two consequences follow from this proposition.
      1. Those motivated to “be good” overwhelmingly/primarily to avoid guilt will more consistently “be good”, because (for them) guilt is an inevitable consequence of wrongdoing, with others’ knowledge of the wrongdoing more or less irrelevant. OTOH, those motivated to “be good” overwhelmingly/mainly to avoid shame will less consistently “be good”, because others’ discovery (or likely discovery) of the wrongdoing is necessary to excite those others’ disapproval and the consequent feeling of shame.
      2. The first category of persons will (all other things being equal) be more likely to maintain the same standards of what it means to “be good” over a long period of time, because their motivator for such behaviour does not depend directly on the views of others concerning what it means to “be good”. OTOH, the second category will be less likely to maintain a relatively fixed set of standards in this regard, because their motivator to “be good” is so directly dependent on the views of others. As social mores change, and as they change their social circles, what makes this second category ashamed is likely to change.

  12. seatac says:

    Thanks for this…makes a lot of sense to me and helps me understand your other posts.

    Gladly (for me) it also validates to me that I am/was the more mentally healthy partner in my relationship. Not that I wanted to ‘win’ but because he was always trying to bring me down with him. This post helps me to understand him much better too, frankly feel very badly for him. Our interactions make much more sense to me now. It is fairly easy for someone to make me feel guilt, as I try so hard to be honest, direct yet gentle with people. I am sometimes suprised to find I’ve hurt someone but if I do, and I hear about it, I feel badly and almost always apologize (only wouldn’t if for some reason I just don’t have a relationship with that person and heard through the grapevine or something). I think that this has been easy for me because I do know that I have good intentions but accept the fact that we are all different, and being that I don’t experience myself in conversation, I understand I might come across in a way that was painful to someone else…and it makes me feel bad. Alot like your dinner party example, I sometimes might even know it (I can be a bit sarcastic at times) and already feel a bit guilty about it if I sensed a sensitive recipient.

    I’ve had trouble understanding my boyfriend who I can tell feels emotion, but I couldn’t put my finger on why it felt like he has no empathy for me. He has apologized many times. It is making much more sense now, he’s not in a place yet (if ever) to get past his overwhelming shame. I feel very bad for him when I think about it because he has reason to feel it and its something I Couldn’t save him from and probably made worse.

    I know having a ‘mental illness’ and being labled as bipolar while having such high values is a difficult thing to bear. I know and can see pretty clearly now how much he wishes he was who he pretends to be.

    The trouble is I accepted him as who he is, he’d rather keep pretending to be the perfect version and lashes out at anyone who accidentally or purposefully scratches the surface of that facade.

    Anyway, thanks for this post I’ll keep reading. I wish I had a way to help my boyfriend (ex) its frustrating I’m the one moving on yet continuing to read about these things and keep learning. I probably ordered 10 books on amazon today and felt sad thinking about how I want to keep learning and growing (it hit me when I realized I kept purchasing books and coming back to this site) while he’s probably busy in denial, getting high, or finding his next “victim”

    I’m dealing with some guilt for not taking him back. Instead of me being healthy enough for both of us, he is unhealthy enough to make us both unable to be in the relationship. At least I feel I was sane enough to end it, its still very hard.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Given what you wrote in your other comment about having a narcissistic mother, it’s no surprise you feel responsible for your ex-boyfriend. It’s not unusual for someone like you to grow up feeling she has to “cure” the other person, take care of the mother’s or partner’s needs first, in the hope that she can then have her own needs met.

  13. Leon JC says:

    I’m so glad I found this article…thank you for writing this! Because of a recent personal crisis, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I rarely ever feel guilt, but I’m extremely prone to feeling shame. This is now seriously impacting my life as an man. I thought I was stuck at some earlier stage of Eric Erikson’s psychosocial development…but I think it’s more than that. And also, It’s true what you said, that people who have toxic amounts of shame don’t develop genuine concern for others and envy (even if unconsciously) others who live “shame-free” lives…I’M that person, but I don’t want to be that person anymore.

    I think that the biggest difference between shame and guilt is that guilt could be used as a tool for self-improvement, while shame just keeps eating away at your being and it does nothing for your moral or emotional development. I understand all this, but I don’t feel the same way that I noticed other people feel, the way people relate to each so easily on an emotional level…I want to have that feeling.

    Joseph, this may sound like a strange question…but do you what can I do now to be more guilt-prone rather than shame prone? Taking into consideration my situation.

  14. Brian Taylor says:

    In one of my more popular papers, I tackle the concepts of shame vs guilt, albeit from a more cultural standpoint, although it’s not really that different than from the individual’s standpoint.
    Essentially, the difference seems to be related to a perception of culpability.
    I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts on my paper, or at least, the first half of it.
    Thanks.
    http://www.bkcommunity.com/profiles/blogs/shame-theory

  15. Jason says:

    What a great conversation!!!!!
    And what a coincidence that I made two apologies this morning before reading this article. (and I make an apology maybe once a year)
    Were my apologies motivated by guilt or shame? I’m not sure, although now having been enlightened by these concepts, I can see it’s probably a blending of the two.
    Shame creates such an insidious cycle that perpetuates itself – first we learned to feel bad about ourselves, and we truly identify ourselves with that belief; then we casually hurt other people and it seems ‘natural’ because hurting is at the core of who a shameful person is, and therefore colors what they do. Also the feeling of shame stems from the fear of retribution for the deed, rather than experiencing the compassionate aspect of guilt.
    I hope to read more of your writings.

  16. John Voris says:

    Joseph is quit right: knowing the difference is very important.

    Quoted from above: “Shame is uncomfortable feelings about who or what we ARE.
    Guilt is uncomfortable feelings about what we’ve DONE or are DOING.” I agree that shame is a sustainable feeling however guilt is a transient emotion.

    From our research, the need for a victim is irrelevant as the emotion of guilt and the feeling of shame are both based on two separate criteria. This observation often redefines our understanding of “victim.”

    The internal and innate self establishes abstract meaning, while the external and learned self registers perceived physical facts. As you know, this presence of dual selves have been validated through split-brain research. Also, Jung often referred to this sense of duality as well as many others in psychology and philosophy.

    An excellent example of this behavioral split can be demonstrated in parenting. When a baby continues to crawl toward an electric wall outlet with a paper clip in its hand and ignores its the father’s demands to stop, the parent will eventually become angry and raise his voice. While the parent exhibits the emotion of anger, it is done out of an inner feeling of love for his child.

    While the baby senses physical stress and victimization, the father is justified out of love thereby diluting the term “victim.” It now becomes a matter of perspective. As you can see, culpability is not at issue either.

    This inner love is sustained over time while the externally triggered sense of anger is only a temporary emotion. In this case, the father may easily escape both the feeling of shame and the emotion of guilt by this justification. All parents have this experience.

    Conversely, if the father did nothing and the child received a shock, he may sense both guilt and shame yet directly causing no pain. I say “may ,” because the father may have believed that was the best way to learn, justifying his non-action.

    All of this is related to how our external motivation becomes manifest in social expression driven by our internal motivation of symbolic meaning. Both motivating functions become united in the moment of choice forming our ultimate identity.

    We feel shame when we fail to conform to our moral foundation and emote guilt when we fail to conform to our ethical foundations. We can feel both when utterly alone and when no one is harmed.

    • Having facilitated court ordered classes for shoplifters, I’ve heard many students say they were so ashamed when they got caught. Some of them I believe did feel ashamed while others felt guilty. I really can’t separate where guilt ends and shame begins. I see it as a continuum which is in relation to ones moral/value background. If you know you did something bad then the logical follow-up to that is, “I must be bad.” (or only bad people do bad things)
      I think this comes down to the tendency to try to give two different words a different meaning. Its like if we hear a woman described as beautiful or someone else describes her as gorgeous- does that make her more attractive than if she is described as beautiful? The old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” applies to whoever is feeling the guilt or the shame. Guilt or shame is in the heart of the one who experiences it. Let them choose their words.

  17. Toby Sand says:

    I tink this understanding of shame is the same as Braithwaite is talking about. But he calls what you call guilt here “integrating shame” and shame as “disintegrating shame” . His concepts has had profound implications in criminology and the development of reform programs in several european countries. Check him out if your not familiar with his work. -Toby

  18. Leif Harmsen says:

    Guilt comes with an opportuntiy to better your behavior to avoid the feeling again, precicely because you are responsible for your deed and for yourself. Shame might be more about optics – assuming you are just a bad person means your only remaining options are to hide, run away, or lie to fix appearances. You can see how toxic shame can further itself. Could shame be in part a defeatest’s procrastination – a way to avoid or delay the difficult work of actually improving?

    Could it feed into addiciton – whereby the person can avoid recovery by blaming themselves for being bad rather than changing their behavior? What’s worse, there are powerful substances that temporarily remove feelings of shame and guilt. Are there ways to help somone in trouble become sufficiently self-posessed to give their inner-shame “the finger”, own their guilt and enjoy the resulting opportunity to recover and improve?

    There is a window of opportunity during our messy adolescence when we can rebel against the status-quo and clense ourselvs of shame. Perhaps it is never too late to rebel against our shame and become more self-posessed but that takes guts, something the ashamed are short on.

  19. Rebecca W says:

    Grateful to have found your site. Good, helpful stuff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This post is password protected. Enter the password to view any comments.