We tend to confuse guilt and shame for the same emotion because they often go hand in hand. However, these emotions are different, as guilt is related to behavior and depends on our compassion for others while shame involves feelings about self. These two emotions typically come about intertwined – we naturally feel guilty because we hurt other person but also feel ashamed after acknowledging that we are a kind of person who would act that way.
For example, when you do something you were not supposed to, guilt would be “I did something wrong”. Shame, on the other hand, would sound like “I am a bad person”. In other words, guilt involves the awareness that your behavior has hurt someone else and shame reflects how you feel about yourself.
Some experts believe that shame is associated with depression, aggression, violence, abuse, eating disorders, and addiction while guilt is correlated with empathy.
How to Cope with Guilt and Shame
Understanding the difference between guilt and shame could help you tackle your negative thoughts and destructive self-judgment.
Research shows that children can experience guilt as early as at age 3-6. However, a child can experience shame even earlier – according to some studies, a 15-month old can feel shame. Many authors see this as the reason why shame is more difficult to fight against – it is more deeply wired in our brain. In other words, shame is strongly connected to our sense of self and therefore hard to reverse.
Unlike healthy guilt that we experience when our actions contradict objective definitions of right and wrong, unhealthy guilt involves a feeling of discomfort about something we’ve done against our unrealistically high moral standards. Similarly, unhealthy shame involves seeing ourselves as unworthy and profoundly imperfect. These unhealthy feelings of guilt and shame can lead to withdrawal and cause different mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders or substance abuse.
The best way to work with your feeling of shame is to exercise self-compassion. Self-compassion is about your ability to comfort yourself and to relate to the self with kindness. Learning how to be self-compassionate will strengthen you to recognize the difference between making a bad decision or acting wrongly and being a bad person. Furthermore, self-compassion will help you to treat yourself with understanding and acceptance. Also, it can help you alleviate anxious ruminations and dismantle your negative self-thoughts. Furthermore, self-compassion can help you to understand common humanity and recognize that flaws and imperfections are part of collective human experience. This awareness should allow you to be more forgiving and kinder to yourself and tackle unhealthy guilt and shame more successfully.