Insights into Psychology

What Is… Shame and Guilt

chart contrasting shame and guilt

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.  This week’s terms are shame and guilt.

According to Wikipedia, guilt is a social emotion that stems from the belief that one is responsible for having violated standards of conduct or morality.  It tends to be strongly correlated with empathic responsiveness.  Guilt may be a part of various mental illnesses, including anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and mood disorders.  “Guilt of delusional proportions” refers to guilt with associated beliefs so firmly held they have reached the level of psychosis.  

From a Freudian perspective, there are several defense mechanisms that may be used to avoid experiencing guilt.  These include repression, projection onto others, sharing the guilt, and engaging in self-harm.

Shame: Self as bad

Wikipedia describes shame as being another type of social emotion.  It stems from negatively comparing oneself to certain social standards, and doesn’t have the same moral connotations that guilt does.  Also, it is negatively correlated with empathic responsiveness.  I found this line in the Wikipedia entry very interesting: “no action by the shamed being is required: simply existing is enough”.  The self is seen as bad and inadequate based on the expected perception of others, and contempt is a key element.

Several types of shame have been identified, including genuine shame associated with genuine social disgrace, secret shame, toxic shame that is induced by child abuse, and vicarious shame experienced on behalf of another person.  Narcissism may be one type of defense system against shame.

Measuring shame and guilt

There are various psychometric tests that measure guilt and shame, including the Guilt and Shame Proneness Scale.  But it seems to me that, in essence, it comes down to guilt as the feeling that comes with the thought that we’ve done an action that is wrong, and shame as the feeling associated with the belief that we ourselves are just plain wrong.  I also get the sense that shame is often deeply rooted in trauma and other childhood experiences.

My own experience

I don’t tend to experience a lot of shame, and I think much of that comes down to the fact that I had the sort of stereotypical normal, happy childhood.  What I have experienced is guilt.  I mentioned guilt of delusional proportions earlier in part because that’s something I apparently had during my first depressive episode, although I have little memory of that time.  

When I’m highly depressed, I tend to believe that the depression is my fault, and that any events/situations that contributed to the depressive episode were very much my fault.  What did trigger a lot of shame for me was the workplace bullying experience, particularly before I came to understand that what I had experienced was in fact bullying.

In general, I tend to be a fan of the acceptance and commitment therapy idea that emotions aren’t inherently good or bad, and it’s the resistance to perceived negative emotions that often gets us in trouble.  I do think, though, that we need to apply a sort of cognitive behavioural therapy-style evidence barometer test to the guilt and shame we experience.  Since they’re social emotions, they both involve how we relate to the social world, and that’s something that’s heavily influenced by our cognitions.

Are guilt and/or shame emotions that you struggle with?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

Visit The Psychology Corner for an overview of terms covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, along with s a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

21 thoughts on “What Is… Shame and Guilt”

  1. Another thought provoking post. In the throes of trying to process repressed memories and work through the emotions and feeling, learning how to cope with my symptoms, I had tremendous guilt and shame. Now I have learned the difference between the two, can catch myself before going down the shame spiral and have let go of the guilt I felt. I am a huge fan of acceptance commitment therapy. I have been using it the last 8 months with my therapist and have come miles for having self compassion and really understanding my symptoms of PTSD. I dont get angry at my PTSD any longer. Which is huge for me. Thanks for posting this. ❤️

    1. That is definitely a huge accomplishment. I haven’t actually done ACT with a therapist, but even working on it on my own has been helpful in taking a different stance toward emotions that feel more difficult. xo

      1. Yeah, its been kind of amazing. I went from thinking I was f***ed up, to no the things that happened to me were f***ed up. It was a huge shift in my healing.

  2. Great blog post!! Very insightful and well thought out!!

    I’m sad you get down on yourself and blame yourself for being depressed!! 🙁

    I love how you distinguish them as feeling like you did something wrong (guilt) or you ARE something wrong (shame). That’s really keen!! I hadn’t thought of it that way!

    One thing that confuses me is the word “ashamed.” Does it mean you feel guilt or shame?

    1. That’s a good question. It’s often used as “I feel ashamed of”, which seems to imply that it’s guilt over something in particular.

  3. This was a very interesting post. I remember from the time I was a child, I was always saying “I’m Sorry” for this, that, and everything in between. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with mental illness, my therapist noticed this, and we worked on this for over a year. What was I apologizing for, I will never know. I never did anything wrong but felt like I did something wrong all the time.
    Now, I rarely ever say it, unless it is truly warranted.

    1. In Canada saying “I’m sorry” is often considered the polite thing to do, but it’s got a different feel to it than believing we’ve done something wrong.

  4. Shame, is I am bad.
    Guilt, is I did something bad.

    I was in treatment and we had to do an exercise with three chairs. Chair one was the inner critic, chair two was the person hearing what the critic had to say, chair three was the self compassionate person we all struggle to have. It’s a very intense exercise, but its purpose is to become shame resilient.

      1. It was an amazing experience. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. There was so many mixed emotions, but in the end I felt free. I found ways to stop the shame & realize the things I’m shameful over really weren’t ever my fault.

  5. I was taught in my DBT program that guilt was telling you that you’ve broken your own value, and shame is telling your that you’ve broken a group/shared/societal value. Guilt (ideally) urges you to fix the problem, whereas shame urges you to hide.
    That’s interesting that there are different types of guilt and shame.
    I’m sorry that you were bullied and that you felt so much guilt. 🙁 Those sound really hard.

  6. Hey, Ashley, you have a typo in the 4th paragraph ( it should read “plain wrong” I believe).
    I experience both shame and guilt. I was very shamed as a child by my bullies. Studies have shown that excessive shame in childhood leads to mental health conditions.
    I also feel guilty every time I screw up, which is good because it means I’m not a psychopath haha. I’ve had delusional guilt too, when I had a psychotic episode.

  7. “When I’m highly depressed, I tend to believe that the depression is my fault, and that any events/situations that contributed to the depressive episode were very much my fault.” – could have written that myself. Depression is a master of twisting the truth and making us believe its lies.

Leave a Reply