What is shame and how is it different to guilt?

Trigger warning – themes of shame and guilt, emotions and abusive environments.

In understanding our emotions, body sensations and thought patterns, we can learn to regulate our physical and mental health.

A commonly misunderstood emotion is shame and sometimes it is confused with the feeling of guilt.

While they may appear to be similar, in that they can both feel unpleasant, their functions are very different. Although both emotions can have thoughts attached to them like the examples below, shame in particular may appear only as a physical sensation without thought. More on that later.

Guilt vs. shame –

Guilt is the feeling of doing something wrong, or something that is perceived to be wrong against your own and societies moral standards.

“I really shouldn’t have been so abrupt with that person in the coffee shop this morning, they were just doing their job and I was tired. Tomorrow I’ll make sure I’m my usual friendly self.”

Shame is the feeling that the whole self is wrong in the sense that there is nothing that can be done because you are the thing that’s wrong, defected or ‘broken’ – a term commonly used to describe a car part or a machine.

Typical of me to be so abrupt with that person in the coffee shop this morning, I’m such a bad person, they must think I’m a loser, I don’t belong in there anyway.”

What does shame feel like?

As mentioned above, shame can be an uncomfortable physical sensation. Some people experience the feeling of shame in different parts of the body but some report nausea and stomach aches.

Shame doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to one specific circumstance and it often evokes feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem and they often stem from other people’s opinions.

Healthy shame vs. unhealthy shame

Shame can be useful in the right context. Healthy shame has the biological mechanism of keeping us in check with our social morals keeping us safe.

Let’s explore this further with a contextual example–

A child is disciplined for running with scissors, something the child did not realise was dangerous at that point. The child realised it was not a good behaviour because a caregiver firmly warned the child to stop for their own safety.

The child may feel sheepish and embarrassed, but they quickly got over it and carried on with life and learned not to run with scissors.

Unhealthy shame –

However, unhealthy shame occurs in the context a child being constantly berated and put down for their personal qualities and mistakes.

This usually happens in abusive environments where the child quickly interprets feelings of inadequacy, inferiority and that they should feel ashamed of who they are.

The child can develop into an adult with low self-esteem issues and can become overly sensitive to anything that feels like criticism and may have trouble with ruminating thoughts, sometimes known as ‘the inner critic’.

Neuroscience research suggests that internal mechanisms of the brain responsible for rumination can be more active in people with shame.

Parts responsible for this are the default mode network of the posterior cingulate cortex and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. See my post on the brain and the workplace. What could be causing brain fog and what to do about it.

Humans do not break –

In a psychological sense, whatever context for the development of shame, a person is not faulty in the same way that if a machine breaks down it either has to be fixed or replaced.

The care and support provided from trained mental health professionals respects that humans are far more complex and are not there to be ‘fixed’, but to explore ways and means of self-development and self-compassion.

Because in implying that a person’s emotions and whole mental health can be fixed by a single external source or activity, is moving more towards an oversimplistic ‘just get over it’ attitude that is unhelpful and damaging. See my blog on the self-care movement for my professional views on that subject.

Working with guilt and shame

Understanding and noticing is the first step and being able to distinguish between guilt and shame, this develops a higher sense of emotional intelligence which is something everyone has the capacity to develop.

In particular, self-compassion body-based exercises can help with feelings of unhealthy shame and rumination. The body element provides grounding which can help a person gradually establish their own sense of safety and security.

Finally, the social aspect of exploring connections that provide a sense of belonging can be helpful in regulating self-esteem and having a deeper sense of purpose and meaning in life.

Always consult your GP or healthcare provider for any changes to your physical or mental health. For support on childhood abuse the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) https://napac.org.uk/

References:

Bannister, J. A., Colvonen, P. J., Angkaw, A. C., & Norman, S. B. (2019). Differential relationships of guilt and shame on posttraumatic stress disorder among veterans. Psychological Trauma: Theory, research, practice, and policy, 11(1), 35.

Dempsey, H. L. (2017). A comparison of the social-adaptive perspective and functionalist perspective on guilt and shame. Behavioral Sciences, 7(4), 83.

Kozlowska, K., Walker, P., McLean, L., & Carrive, P. (2015). Fear and the defense cascade: clinical implications and management. Harvard review of psychiatry.

Matos, M., & Steindl, S. R. (2020). “You are already all you need to be”: A case illustration of compassion‐focused therapy for shame and perfectionism. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 76(11), 2079-2096.

Sedighimornani, N., Rimes, K. A., & Verplanken, B. (2019). Exploring the relationships between mindfulness, self-compassion, and shame. Sage Open, 9(3), 2158244019866294.

Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. Azure Coyote.

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20 days ago

[…] Shame is not to be confused with guilt. In a nutshell, shame is a feeling that you are inherently wrong, bad or defective and may not be related to a specific event. Guilt is the feeling you feel when you actually did something that your perceived to be morally wrong. Please see my post on guilt vs shame for more information about the difference. […]

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