Understanding the Differences Between Shame and Guilt

When you make mistakes, what do you say to yourself? Do you feel shame and guilt?

You might think these emotions are essentially the same, but there are powerful differences between the two. Which one you feel when you do something you aren’t proud of has significant effects on how you react and your ability to learn from mistakes.

Guilt is an uncomfortable but useful emotion that can guide you towards becoming the version of yourself you want to be. Shame, on the other hand, is harmful and can make you feel trapped by your own shortcomings, leading to destructive behaviours.

By understanding the differences between guilt and shame, you can identify which emotion you’re feeling and work on moving from shame to guilt so you can learn and grow from your mistakes instead of punishing yourself.

What is guilt?

Guilt is the uncomfortable realisation that you’ve acted in a way that’s at odds with your values. You could feel guilty for forgetting you told a friend you would help them because you value being reliable. Or you might feel guilty after binging on unhealthy food because you value taking care of yourself.

Guilt focuses on your behaviour, not yourself. You say to yourself “I can’t believe I did that. That was so irresponsible.” If you were feeling shame, you would say “I can’t believe I did that – I’m so irresponsible.” This focus on behaviour rather than self is what makes guilt informative – behaviours can be changed and improved with practice, but changing yourself isn’t always possible.

Guilt is useful because it requires self-reflection and lets you know when you’ve done something you’ll regret doing again. This encourages you to make up for your mistakes and teaches you valuable lessons about how to act so you can be proud of yourself and your decisions.

shame and guilt

Although they may seem similar, there are important differences between shame and guilt

Guilt can be unnecessary

Although guilt can teach you valuable lessons, it isn’t helpful in all situations. Feeling guilty when you haven’t done anything wrong so there isn’t a lesson to be learned is known as “toxic guilt”.

Some people feel guilty over things they have no control over, like rain the day of their BBQ or a gift not fitting. Feeling guilt in these situations is blaming yourself for what went wrong, which is a sign you believe you can control everything in your life. But you have to accept there are many things you can’t control. There isn’t a lesson to learn about what you can do better next time, so guilt doesn’t serve a purpose in these types of situations.

Feeling guilty for very small mistakes is also unnecessary. Everyone makes mistakes, like forgetting birthdays and burning dinner. Believing you shouldn’t make them is trying to be perfect, and this is impossible. If you feel guilty after every mistake you make, you’ll become exhausted and burnt-out, and can even be ashamed at your seeming inability to improve.

To keep from feeling unnecessary guilt, remember what you can and can’t control and be realistic about what you’re capable of. To take care of your mental health, you need to know the difference between guilt that helps you learn and grow, and guilt that doesn’t teach you how to be a better person.

shame and guilt,

Guilt is useful in many situations, but sometimes it’s unnecessary

What is shame?

Shame is the psychological pain that comes from believing there’s something wrong with you so you don’t deserve to have connections with other people. This is a powerless, isolating experience that is very damaging to your mental health and wellbeing.

Unlike guilt, the focus of shame is on yourself, not your behaviour. Instead of regretting your actions and understanding that you made a mistake, you tell yourself that you are a mistake. Instead of thinking “I can’t believe I did that – that was thoughtless”, you tell yourself “I’m such a terrible person – what’s wrong with me?”.

Shame also prevents you from learning from your mistakes. If you believe you make mistakes because there’s something wrong with you, you’re telling yourself that you can’t learn and do better if you try again. You can’t hate yourself into becoming a better person.

How are shame and guilt different?

Shame is about how you think you appear to others, rather than how your behaviour affected yourself or other people. If you feel ashamed after a spending spree, you’re not upset because you acted without considering the consequences – you’re worried about how other people will think you’re an idiot for wasting so much money. If you forgot you were meeting a friend for lunch and never showed up, instead of feeling empathy for your friend you focus on how terrible of a person your friend must think you are.

When you’re feeling ashamed, you’re not capable of learning from your mistakes. Shame tells you you’re the problem and that’s the only lesson to learn. No matter how selfish, thoughtless or hurtful of a mistake you made, there are never any situations where feeling ashamed will make you a better person or teach you how to do better next time.

Why guilt is better than shame?

Because shame is such a harmful emotion, you should learn how to turn it into guilt when you’ve made a mistake so you can learn from when you did.

Shame might be painful, but in some ways it’s easier than guilt because when you feel ashamed, you don’t need to look for a solution to the problem or an explanation for what went wrong. You already know the answer – you’re the mistake. So instead of understanding what happened and planning how you can do better next time, you tell yourself you should never have tried in the first place and you’ll never try again. If you feel ashamed for skipping too many workouts, you can tell yourself you’re lazy and always will be so there’s no point in trying to do better next week. If you hurt a friend’s feelings your shame can tell you to avoid them at all costs so you never apologise or repair the relationship.

No matter how damaging of a mistake you made, guilt is always better than shame. Shame is immersing yourself in self-pity while telling yourself to stay away from what made you feel that way; guilt is realising that you’ve done something wrong, asking yourself what caused you to make the mistake, and how you can keep from doing that again. (Guilt is asking yourself how you can improve while shame is punishing yourself for not being good enough.)

Shame is never useful because it only teaches you to hate yourself. All mistakes are opportunities to learn. By learning from them, you can become more resilient and wiser than you were before.

Moving from shame to guilt

In order to stop feeling ashamed of yourself, you need to know when you’re experiencing shame. This means listening to your thoughts and realising when you’re blaming your mistake on who you are so you can challenge what you’re thinking about yourself. Because shame is so painful, this can be very difficult.

There may be some truth to your thoughts – that you shouldn’t have done something or you should regret what you did – but turning your shame into guilt doesn’t mean you tell yourself that what you did was okay. In order to make up for mistakes you need to focus on how your behaviour affected others rather than only thinking about how bad you feel. This will benefit yourself and the person or people you hurt because when you’re guilty you’re more likely to make up for what you did and less likely to make the same mistake again.

Once you know what your shame is telling you, you should share this with someone you trust. Telling someone what you did wrong and hearing them tell you that although you could have done better, you’re not alone and everyone makes mistakes can help you stop feeling ashamed. The most painful aspect of shame is how isolating it is, so hearing that you’re not alone in what you did takes away a great deal of it’s power.

Moving from shame to guilt doesn’t mean you stop feeling bad or regretting your behaviour. It means you stop telling yourself there’s something wrong with you and instead ask yourself how you can improve and make up for your mistake.

Guilt can make you a better person while shame only does harm

Feeling shame is very painful but it’s also natural emotion and a part of being human. You can’t stop yourself from feeling shame, but you can understand what shame and why it’s harmful is so you can realise when you’re feeling it and move from shame into guilt.

Changing your reactions to mistakes isn’t easy, but understanding the effects of your reactions can help you think of your mistakes in a way that will help you learn and grow from them.

The ability to learn from your mistakes is an incredibly useful tool that can enable you to make valuable changes in your life. Challenging your painful thoughts is difficult, but it can help you view yourself as being capable of growth and improvement.

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