In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s terms are shame and guilt.
Guilt and shame are sometimes used synonymously, but they’re actually two distinct constructs that focus on different things being bad or wrong. Both are social emotions in that they arise from the way we relate to others. Various psychometric tests measure guilt and shame, including the Guilt and Shame Proneness Scale.
Guilt: I did something bad
Guilt stems from the belief that one is responsible for having violated standards of conduct or morality. It can relate to actions, or even to thoughts or emotions that we believe to be inappropriate. It tends to be strongly correlated with empathic responsiveness, as a sense of harm to other(s) is perceived, and the focus is on others rather than the self.
Guilt can play a role in various mental illnesses, including anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and mood disorders. This may include free-floating guilt, which relates to actions that are outside of one’s control. Guilt can even be delusional if the associated beliefs are so firmly held that they’ve reached the level of psychosis; this is sometimes referred to as guilt of delusional proportions.
From a Freudian perspective, several defense mechanisms may be used for the purpose of avoiding the experience of guilt. These include repression, projection onto others, sharing the guilt, and engaging in self-harm.
Shame: I am bad
Shame comes from negatively comparing oneself to certain social standards. It involves a fear of humiliation and judgment or ridicule if one’s shameful act or characteristic is exposed to others. No one else has to be actually present for shame to occur. Unlike guilt, shame 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.”
When people experience shame, the self is seen as bad and inadequate based on the expected perception of others. Contempt is a key element.
Shame leads to social withdrawal, including attempts to shift others’ attention away from one’s own actions, as well as defensiveness and anger. People who are more prone to shame are at higher risk for a number of mental disorders, including depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders. It can also feed into low self-esteem. Women and adolescents tend to be more shame-prone than others.
You may be interested in this post on the compass of shame.
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, including delusional guilt; apparently, I had this during my first depressive episode, although I have little memory of that time.
When I’m highly depressed, I will sometimes believe that the depression is my fault, and that any events/situations that contributed to the depressive episode were very much my fault. One thing that did trigger a lot of shame for me was the workplace bullying experience; this was particularly the case 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; 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.
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.
Are guilt and/or shame emotions that you struggle with?
- APA Dictionary of Psychology: Guilt and Shame
- Scientific American: The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame
- Wikipedia: Guilt (emotion) | Shame | Social emotions
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.