Guilt & Shame – The Importance of Distinguishing the Two

We often hear shame and guilt used interchangeably. Much research has been done in this area and the need to distinguish between the two is not only important academically but understanding the differences on an emotional level is also vital. Let’s begin with some definitions:

Guilt: a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.

Shame: the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.

There are several ways to distinguish between shame and guilt. Shame speaks to “I am broken” whereas guilt says “I did something wrong”. Much has been written about these two emotions including John Bradshaw’s “Healing The Shame that Binds You”. In his book, Bradshaw talks about toxic shame as a barrier to intimate relationships and healthy self-esteem and believes it also contributes to the development of anxiety and depression. Shame is never helpful to the individual; it doesn’t allow for positive changes to be made and may in fact rob us of the motivation or desire to consider taking responsibility for addressing the negative thoughts and perceptions often given to us from our childhood.

Guilt is different than shame in that it is about making a mistake. It is the feeling of hurting someone else and then understanding that to make things right one must take responsibility for their actions. The feeling of guilt can pass with time and healing can then begin. Guilt has the potential to motivate us; to push us forward and get us to look at options and changes that can be made or to provide empathy in order to create harmony and intimacy in our relationships. Guilt is a teacher in that it can prevent us from making choices that might cause pain or the mistreatment of others.

When not managed effectively guilt can, however, result in some ugly behaviour patterns such as verbally or emotionally attacking those around us or attempting to be perfect and do everything “just right” (unachievable and unrealistic). This clearly is exhausting and only leads to failure which can then lead to blaming others or withdrawing and avoiding the challenge to try again, which is self-sabotaging.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has shown to be effective in helping individuals understand the difference between guilt and shame, to become more aware of our self-sabotaging thought pattern, and to challenge these thoughts in order for it to cease. Counseling can assist in healing from the wounds of shame and motivate us to take responsibility for altering those negative thoughts and break free from the chains of shame and guilt that keep us stuck in the mud.

If you or someone you know seems mired down by shame or guilt, provide a pathway for help and encourage them to give us a call.

Philippa & Kerry