Guilt Vs Shame: What’s the Difference? 

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Understanding the key difference between guilt and shame is important for maintaining mental health. Because these two share similar characteristics, it can be challenging to tell which one we’re feeling. But knowing what sets them apart can be crucial in dealing with either guilt or shame when they arise. 

One of these emotions can trigger negative self-punishment, which is detrimental to our sense of worth. But both can be used as powerful tools for personal transformation. Let’s explore the difference between guilt and shame, and how we can deal with them when they hit.

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Guilt Vs Shame

  • Guilt: The emotion you get when you have remorse for making a mistake, or committing an offense against someone else. It is usually caused by an action we take.
  • Shame: The emotion you get when you feel like you are inadequate as a person, worthy of contempt, or that you are inherently bad. It is an internalized emotion, and not always caused by an external action or event. 

A potent way to describe guilt vs. shame is this: guilt is the feeling you get when you do something bad, and shame is the feeling you get when you believe you are bad in some way. 

Guilt over something we perceive we’ve done wrong can be a guidepost for future growth. Shame tends to wear away at our self-esteem and sense of worth as a human being. 

What is Guilt? 

Guilt is typically triggered by a specific action, event, or offense that you may have committed. This makes guilt more grounded in a real, concrete moment in time. Because of this, it is often a simpler process to work through feelings of guilt than shame.

With guilt, there is a clearer-cut way to right a wrong or seek forgiveness. You can arrive at acceptance and even make amends. 

Looking for resources that will guide you along your feelings of guilt? Visit BetterHelp for Guilt Advice and other mental health resources.

What is Shame? 

The emotion of shame tends to be targeted towards your intrinsic self rather than an action you’ve taken. It’s the feeling that you’ve completely failed as a human being, that you’ve let others down, or that you’re worthy of contempt. 

A sense of shame tends to come from our opinion of ourselves in relation to others’ opinions about who we are. Shame can start to form in childhood if we are harshly punished, chastised, neglected, or abused. 

As our self-esteem wears down, the shame we experience often increases in frequency and severity. Another risk factor for shame includes social isolation. When we don’t have a solid support system to openly talk about our shame, it will fester.

Dealing With Guilt or Shame Healthily

It’s easier to deal with feelings of guilt than feelings of shame, but both are challenging to face. Here’s how to tell which one you’re experiencing, and what to do about it.

Guilt: Guiding Your Way Towards Personal Growth

Despite assumptions, guilt is actually a useful emotional mechanism. Connected to our moral compass, it helps us identify when our actions have misaligned from our values and who we strive to be. 

Without guilt, we would go out into the world harming others and ourselves, with no sense of moral grounding. But it’s also possible to allow our guilt to spiral, and even evolve into shame. 

To deal with guilt, we must acknowledge and accept the ways we’ve wronged someone or something. Then we must seek ways to make amends. Whether this is asking for forgiveness, changing our future behaviors, or even forgiving ourselves, we must make amends in order to release guilt. 

Shame: Separating Your Actions from Yourself

To deal with shame, we must be able to separate our actions from who we are. Shame is rooted in a sense that we are inherently bad. Instead, we must realize that making mistakes or doing bad things doesn’t equate to being a bad person.

Another essential component to freeing ourselves from shame is talking about it with someone we trust. Shame significantly loses its power over us when we share it with someone else. 

Do we have a secret we’ve been harboring for years about a shame-inducing event from our past? Speak with a loved one or counselor about this, and bring it out into the open. You may feel vulnerable and overexposed, but a weight will be lifted off your shoulders. Then you can truly begin to heal.


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