Shame and Guilt
What are the similarities and differences between shame and guilt? Often people would express them as negative emotions that they would like to get rid of that is unshakable within themselves. However, are these feelings all bad and unhelpful? If emotions are neither good nor bad, how is shame and guilt helpful?
We begin by looking at the similarities. For starters, they are generally considered by most as 'negative emotions' (However, in true psychology work, emotions are never considered positive or negative). Both emotions make people feel bad about themselves and like most emotions, if suppressed it may have negative consequences. Both shame and guilt may potentially motivate people to access support and lead a pro-social life.
Miceli and Castelfranchi (2018) in the Europe Journal of Psychology noted shame and guilt as
“……unpleasant emotions implying a negative self-evaluation against one’s own standards; both of them can be experienced either publicly or privately; both can be elicited by the same kind of fault; both can trigger either self-defensive or reparative action tendencies; both can have either adaptive or maladaptive implications and both can involve the self.”
Shame : An emotion of being personally flawed – worthless or defective.
Guilt : An emotion arising from something that we have perceived to have done wrong.
The core difference is that when we feel guilty we view the action negatively. The feeling of guilt arises from our action impacting someone else. We feel responsible for those actions. On the other hand, when shame arises, we view ourselves responsible for our action and in a negative light.
A person who experiences shame would be more likely to think: “I am useless”, “I am not good enough”, “I am pathetic”, etc., whereas a person who experiences guilt would be more likely to think: “I feel bad for not helping her”, “I feel that I have troubled my family member”, etc. Shame in this context appears to be more disabling than guilt. Compared to shame, guilt may suggest that the person has more space for empathy. Guilt may hold us back from hurting others and motivates us to improve our relationships. Taking this into context, it would seem to be that working through guilt would be somewhat easier than overcoming shame as shame has a deeper and more anchored root – It is easier to say sorry than to accept oneself.
A study by Pivetti, Camodeca, and Rapino, (2016), suggests that shame was not related towards aggressive tendencies but it was considered to be connected to being a failure, having poor eye contact and a low awareness of hurting and transgressing compared to those who feel guilty. They found that people who felt guilty were more likely to repair the damage that they might have caused compared to those who felt shame.
Developmentally, shame can develop earlier on in life. Some researchers have suggested as early as 1.5 years old. Meanwhile guilt is usually experienced around 3-6 years old when a child realises the “otherness” and that people and others have feelings and may feel hurt. When children experience “good enough” environments, they develop a sense of self that is able to view other people as “other” and to feel concern for them. It is when there is a lack of “good enough” environments (notice I did not say “perfect”) where shame and guilt become fertile ground for growth.
Are There Benefits?
Like any other emotions, emotions are a response or a by-product from an experience. So they are technically neither good nor bad. However, when explored and examined they can potentially inform us of something deeper.
Consider an individual that is shameless and guiltless. Such an individual would be an abhorrent to society, acting out in pure self-interest, breaking every social norm and social niceties that sustains a well-balanced society. Some consider shamelessness stemming from a need to adapt or adjust to on-going feelings of shame. In a need to be victorious over shame, they subjugate their own responsible behaviour.
Shame and guilt are potential indicators to help align us back to relationships and others. They are warning bells that we need to heed as they tell us that something is not going right in the relationship. Like many other emotions, they become damaging when they are suppressed, ignored or when an individual experiences multiple similar high level emotions. This is not about shamefulness being better than shameless, however, it is about the importance of acknowledging these feelings and working with them to understand ourselves better.
Resolving Shame and Guilt
As cliché as it sounds, acknowledgement is the first step to recovery. Acknowledge that you feel guilty and feel shame. Next, sit with these feeling and notice them. Try not to ‘psychoanalyse’ them and make sense of them. Just notice the thoughts, feelings and body sensations that come with these feelings and allow yourself to be with these feelings. Practice self-compassion and allow yourself to forgive yourself. If required, say sorry to those you have wronged and work on changing those behaviours and attitudes. We are not made perfect and it is okay to make mistakes. We are after all, humans, wanting to work towards the betterment of ourselves and we are entitled to make mistakes through the process. Examining the origins of shame and guilt can be helpful when the emotions are less distressing or manageable as it allows you to make sense of the cause and potential triggers.
If you are struggling to acknowledge or to sit with these feelings, this may be a good indicator to seek professional help as there may be other underlying reasons for one to avoid needing to feel. It can be unhelpful and adverse for an individual to force themselves to feel when just feeling itself is distressing. Do reach out and seek professional help.
Disclaimer: The material on this blog is not to be used by any commercial or personal entity without expressed written consent of the blog's author. The article above is an opinion of an individual clinician and should not be taken as full clinical advice. The statements on this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any mental health or mental illnesses. Always consult your doctor for medical advice or seek professional therapy.