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?
You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.