Guilt and shame are not the same. Understanding the differences between them can help us work through our negative self-judgments.
When we are better able to grasp the difference between healthy guilt, unhealthy guilt, and shame, we can begin to halt self-criticism and reject shame messages.
In a nutshell, Guilt is often experienced when we act against our values. Shame, on the other hand, is a deeply-held belief about our unworthiness as a person.
Here’s a way to start working through it:
Cause of Feeling
When it develops
Why we feel this
Helpful (healthy) Guilt
Helpful guilt is a feeling of psychological discomfort about something we’ve done that is objectively wrong, for example, Chris hit someone while driving drunk and feels guilty.
Helpful guilt is caused by actions or behaviours that break objective definitions of right and wrong. We act in a way that breaks objective standards of moral behavior.
We can experience guilt as early as age 3-6. (Developmentally, guilt is a more mature emotion than shame).
Outcome: Potentially positive.
Healthy guilt allows us to seek forgiveness and correct a wrong. It can lead to healing.
Healthy guilt resolves as we repair the damage we caused.
How to work with:
- Face the behaviour that hurt self and others.
- Take responsibility for the harm done.
- Seek forgiveness from the person affected.
- Change destructive behaviour and attitudes that created the harm.
- Reclaim wholeness and heal relationship with the person affected.
Unhelpful (unhealthy) Guilt
Unhelpful guilt is a feeling of psychological discomfort about something we’ve done against our irrationally high standards. For example, Pat forgot a co-worker’s name and feels terribly guilty about it.
Unhelpful guilt is caused by actions or behaviors that break irrationally high standards. We act in a way that breaks irrational standards of behavior developed early in childhood to please an adult.
We can experience guilt as early as age 3-6.
Unhealthy guilt leads us to emphasise self-punishment over behavior change, trapping us in guilt.
Unhealthy guilt remains until we correct our irrational beliefs.
How to work with:
- Separate and resolve healthy guilt to uncover unhealthy guilt.
- Practice self-compassion and work to understand that everyone possesses a combination of strengths and weaknesses.
- Seek connection with others. Joining a self-help group can offer support.
Shame is an intensely painful feeling of being fundamentally flawed. For example, Jamie feels like a worthless person who is only taking up people’s time and wasting space in the world.
Shame is caused by an innate sense of being worthless or inherently defective. We see ourselves as unworthy and deeply flawed.
We can experience shame as early as 15 months, which is why shame is more deeply wired in our brain and is more difficult to reverse.
Shame causes us to fear that we will be rejected, so it tempts us to disconnect from others and avoid what causes us shame.
It could even start us down a path of deeper mental health problems such as depression and substance abuse.
Shame is internalised and deeply connected to our sense of who we are which makes it more difficult to resolve.
How to work with Shame:
- Exercise self-compassion to shift feelings of shame and move awareness away from self-criticism or proof of inadequacy.
- Pursue relationships. Nurture connections and a sense of belonging with others.