Guilt and shame are two emotions that are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct differences in their meaning and impact on an individual’s life. According to renowned researcher and author Brené Brown, guilt and shame are not the same things and understanding the difference between the two is crucial for developing emotional resilience.
Guilt and shame defined:
Guilt is an emotion that arises from the belief that we have done something wrong or violated a moral or ethical code. It is often accompanied by feelings of regret and remorse, and it is focused on the behavior rather than the person. In contrast, shame is an emotion that arises from a sense of worthlessness or inadequacy about the self. It is a feeling that one is inherently flawed or defective, and it is often accompanied by feelings of humiliation, unworthiness, and self-loathing (Brown, 2012).
Guilt can be a positive emotion that can motivate us to change our behavior and make amends for any harm we may have caused. It is a socially adaptive emotion that is linked to accountability and responsibility. An important component of moral development, guilt can help us develop empathy and compassion for others. It helps us maintain social relationships by acknowledging our mistakes and taking steps to make things right. In contrast, shame is a destructive emotion that can lead to a downward spiral of self-doubt and self-criticism. It can erode our sense of self-worth and make us feel isolated and disconnected from others. Shame can make us feel like we are not good enough to be part of a community and can lead to feelings of loneliness and despair (Brown, 2012).
How do we manage guilt?
Guilt can be a temporary emotion that can be resolved by taking responsibility for our actions and making amends. It can lead to personal growth and help us become more resilient in the face of adversity. When we experience the discomfort of guilt in-the-moment, it influences us to become better decision makers so that we do not have to experience the same guilt again.
Here are a few ways that you can manage guilt:
- Apologize to who you hurt & make things right in whatever way you can.
- Do a body scan and see where the guilty feeling shows up in your body – how can you send peace and relaxation to that part of your body?
- Journal about what events led up to your mistake and analyze how you can prevent the same mistake from happening again in the future (it might be helpful to do this with a therapist!)
- If your mistake was a result of your needs not being met, figure out how you can get your needs met in a healthier way.
- Refrain from negative self talk. Acknowledging a mistake is different from talking down to yourself – negative self talk is a result of shame, not guilt. If you begin sliding into this category, keep reading!
How can we manage shame?
In contrast, shame is a more persistent emotion that can be difficult to overcome. It can become an internalized belief about the self and can be a significant barrier to personal growth and development (Brown, 2012). Sometimes guilt can morph into shame if it is not resolved in a healthy way. For example, if we continue to beat ourselves up over a mistake, we may start to believe that we are inherently flawed and unworthy of love and belonging.
If you find yourself struggling with shame, I highly recommend trying to find a good therapist to help you work through it. A lot of time shame can be deep-rooted in messaging you have believed about yourself for a very long time. A good therapist will sit with you through the ups and the downs of working through this.
In conclusion, understanding the difference between guilt and shame is crucial for developing emotional resilience and maintaining healthy relationships. While guilt can be a positive emotion that motivates us to change our behavior and take responsibility for our actions, shame is a destructive emotion that erodes our sense of self-worth and can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection. By learning to identify and cope with both emotions in a healthy way, we can build stronger relationships and cultivate a sense of self-worth and belonging.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Gotham.