Guilty pleasures. Guilty conscience. Guilt trips.
Our society seems obsessed with guilt. It is the topic of thousands of books. You can cook without guilt. Diet without guilt. Eat chocolate or fried foods without guilt. Parent your children without guilt. Be a guilt-free working parent or a guilt-free single parent. Be a guilt-free golfer. But should we really be trying to get rid of all of our guilt? And what happens when our guilt turns into shame?
Know the Difference Between Guilt and Shame
The words guilt and shame are often used to say the same thing. However, the two emotions are quite different.
Guilt is defined as:
- Being responsible for wrongdoing or a crime
- Feeling responsible for having done something wrong
Shame is defined as:
- A painful emotion—caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace
- A condition of disgrace or dishonor
The difference between both experiences is clear. We experience guilt when we injure someone else with our poor choices. Guilt is a natural part of being human. It is an important part of our value system. It motivates us to change. Guilt encourages us to:
- Take action
- Right a wrong
- Become a better person
A little guilt can be a good thing. But sometimes guilt happens when we expect too much of ourselves. It is important to have realistic expectations.
Shame, on the other hand, is feeling very bad about ourselves. It is feeling deeply flawed or worthless. Shame is a powerful, overwhelming emotion.
Why is it important to discuss the difference? A little guilt is healthy. A guilty person is able to feel for another and show true concern. In contrast, a person who feels shame finds it hard to feel for others. The concern is for his or her bad self-image and feelings.
Ways to Cope
There are methods to help you cope with guilt and shame. Try some of these:
- Recognize your guilt or shame.
- Ask for forgiveness. Make amends to those you have hurt.
- Talk with friends, family members, or a therapist about your feelings of guilt or shame. It may help to talk to someone who has had a similar experience.
- Practice self-compassion each day. This means being kind and gentle with yourself. Accept that you are human and make mistakes.
- Allow yourself time to overcome your guilt and shame.
Use these methods and learn from your experiences. This can help you avoid situations that cause guilt and shame.
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Dealing with guilt and shame in recovery. Heartland House website. Available at: https://heartlandhouse.org/sud-resources/dealing-with-guilt-shame-in-recovery. Accessed June 28, 2021.
Guilt versus shame [infographic]. National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine website. Available at: https://www.nicabm.com/guilt-vs-shame. Accessed June 28, 2021.
Shame. GoodTherapy.org website. Available at: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/shame. Accessed June 28, 2021.
The difference between guilt and shame. Psychology Today website. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shame/201305/the-difference-between-guilt-and-shame. Accessed June 28, 2021.
The five myths of self-compassion. Greater Good Magazine—UC Berkeley website. Available at: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_five_myths_of_self_compassion. Accessed June 28, 2021.
Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Last Updated: 6/28/2021