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.