On the Psychology of Shame and Guilt

On the psychology of shame and guilt     

By Albert Soto

Over the course of years, I have begun to see trends in what ails folks. Very often, some of the concerns tend to be related to issues of self-worth (“Am I good enough?”), relationships (“Do others think I’m good enough?”), and, of course, sharing details about one’s past or inner life with others (“If I share this, then people will really know I’m not good enough”).

At times, it seems that issues of self-worth and combating negative self-evaluations are so common that I started to wonder to what extent this way of being is people’s natural state of mind. When clients bring up concerns such as these, I will inevitably ask them whether they are experiencing guilt or shame. This question is typically met with a puzzled look. After all, is there a difference between guilt and shame? If so, does it matter?

Emotions are most often given value by people based off of the circumstances around the emotion (bigger moments are usually labeled more significant) or whether the emotion is “positive” or “negative.” Positive emotions are typically emotions such as happiness, joy, or even reactions to life pleasures (anything from a cup of coffee to sex).

Negative emotions are those that make us feel bad or ones that we typically prefer to avoid, such as sadness, guilt, shame, and anxiety. When emotions are lumped into either positive or negative, we usually push toward giving more meaning and purpose to positive emotions; however, just as positive emotions can teach us about ourselves and the things that light up our lives, negative emotions can also provide insight into what is going on for us emotionally.

Guilt and shame differ in both how they feel and how they impact a person. Guilt feels like tension. It’s an uncomfortable feeling that can bring about thoughts of wanting to fix what went wrong and it can also bring up sadness about what was done. The focus of guilt is on what was done and it can help us understand how we have harmed ourselves, others, or our social networks. It is difficult to change if we don’t know what we actually did that negatively impacted others. Guilt is the emotion that helps us develop this connection.

Shame, on the other hand, feels like your heart has sunk into your chest. It is often much more than an uncomfortable feeling, it is an unbearable emotion to feel. The focus here is on the self (“I am bad” rather than “I did something bad”). Shame becomes like glue, making it difficult for us to move on and make amends for what was done. Shame can also paralyze us and make us react negatively. Often, people can become so attached to the idea that they are bad that it can become an explanation for other harmful behavior, sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. As you can see, guilt offers opportunity whereas shame offers a sort of stuckness.

From a Buddhist perspective, one might say that shame reflects attachment; here the attachment is to a negative emotion. Rather than being an uncomfortable feeling that goes away, shame sticks around and slowly gnaws at the person, resulting in a sense that something is wrong with them at a very core level. Guilt is temporary and provides opportunity to grow. One can say, “I did that bad thing.” With shame, on the other hand, one is more likely to say, “I am bad, that’s why I did that bad thing.”

Changing who we are requires gaining an understanding of habits that interfere with our lives in a negative manner. The less attached we become to staying with emotions, the more we can see them as being something that typically passes and can provide us with knowledge about ourselves, others, and our environment.

Emotions can be messy, but it is when we get stuck in the glue of negative emotions such as shame that it becomes difficult to grow or change. Guilt is a normal and temporary emotion that helps us understand the ways in which we’ve hurt others, ourselves, or our surrounding environment. Shame, on the other hand, paralyzes us and leads to the false belief that we are bad or that we cannot change.

So we must return to the question of if it matters whether there is a difference between shame and guilt. I believe it is crucial to our growth to know this difference and be able to identify when we are experiencing each of these two emotions.

Consider this example. If a child were to mostly experience shame and begin to believe that they are bad, how would that impact their growth? In our lives, we’ve experienced so many interactions and messages that have caused us to internalize feelings of shame. There are many ways to begin to work through emotional reactions related to shame. Being able to identify when we are experiencing shame is one of the best ways we can begin to free ourselves from how it has held us back. In addition, many spiritual practices help reduce the negative feelings that come with shame, such as practicing compassion toward others, self-compassion, and finding meaning.

In our lives, we have all had instances where we have caused harm or pain to people, including causing damage to ourselves. While it is important that we make amends for our actions and accept responsibility, we are so much more than the things that we have done. Whether through the lens of psychology or spirituality, it is firmly believed by many that people are, at their core, capable of change and positivity. For Buddhists, this is finding one’s Buddha Nature. For many psychologists, this is referred to as self-actualization.

Shame is one of the many psychological barriers that we encounter on this path toward our inner goodness. Our actions can be labeled as good or bad, yet who we are and our sense of identity is much more complicated. We all deserve compassion, love, peace, and forgiveness. This is difficult to achieve psychologically if we hold on to the idea that “I am bad.” Therefore, I encourage you to examine the distinction between shame and guilt, as well as examine the ways in which shame has been a barrier from achieving your inner sense of who you truly are.