The difference between guilt and shame

Although many people use the two words “guilt” and “shame” interchangeably, from a psychological perspective, they actually refer to different experiences.

Guilt is a feeling you get when you did something wrong or perceived you did something wrong.

Shame is a feeling that your whole self is wrong, that you are bad, inadequate, or defective in some way, and it’s not necessarily related to a specific behavior or event.

When you feel guilty about the wrong thing you did, you can take steps to make up for it and put it behind you. But feeling shame, or being convinced that you are the thing that’s wrong, offers no clear-cut way to “come back” to feeling more positive about yourself.

Guilt and shame sometimes go hand in hand; the same action may give rise to feelings of both shame and guilt, where the former reflects how we feel about ourselves and the latter involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else. For example, researcher Tangney and her co-authors explained that “A shame-prone individual who is reprimanded for being late to work after a night of heavy drinking might be likely to think, ‘I’m such a loser; I just can’t get it together,’ whereas a guilt-prone individual would more likely think, ‘I feel bad for showing up late. I inconvenienced my co-workers.’ Feelings of shame can be painful and debilitating, affecting one’s core sense of self, and may invoke a self-defeating cycle of negative affect… In comparison, feelings of guilt, though painful, are less disabling than shame and are likely to motivate us in a positive direction toward reparation or change.

To this end, shame is a much more corrosive emotion than guilt. Knowing this, we can affect more powerful change in others by helping them to understand the effects of their actions on others and to take steps to make up for their transgressions. This is especially important for parents, teachers, and employers, but also relevant for our daily personal relationships.