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.

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 arise from the way we relate to others. Various psychometric tests measure guilt and shame, including the Guilt and Shame Proneness Scale.

Guilt: Action as 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 thoughts or emotions that are believed 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 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, sometimes referred to guilt as delusional proportions, if the associated beliefs are so firmly held that they’ve reached the level of psychosis.

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: Self as bad

Shame comes from negatively comparing oneself to certain social standards, with 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”. The self is seen as bad and inadequate based on the expected perception of others, and 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.

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, which I apparently had 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, 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.


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?

Sources

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Visit the MH@H Resource Pages hub to see other themed pages from Mental Health @ Home.

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