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Shame vs. Guilt – Which One Holds You Back?

Jonathan Riley

“Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them” – Bruce Lee

While the words “guilt” and “shame “are used almost interchangeably, there is a big psychological difference. Shame has long been viewed as “the toxic cousin of guilt. Although shame is an emotion that is closely related to guilt, it is important to understand the differences. Both shame and guilt can have serious implications for our perceptions of ourselves and our actions towards other people, especially in situations of conflict.

In psychological terms, guilt is described as an emotional state that arises when we feel that we have not lived up to the morals of ourselves or others. On the other hand, shame is defined as an intense feeling about the self that comes from failing to live up to your own or others’ standards. Sounds similar, right? The main difference is that shame makes you see yourself as a bad person while guilt implies, you are a good person who makes mistakes. Shame involves complete self-condemnation and is a major attack against the self in which the individual believes that society will find them completely unacceptable. Whereas guilt helps you recognise your actions and encourages you to repair the relationship by apologising or atoning for the harm that has been caused.

According to Raut (n.d) shameful people avoid and attack; guilty people repair and rebuild. When you feel guilt instead of shame, you see the occasional error as separate from who you are. When you move from shame to guilt, you realise that everyone makes mistakes from time to time and that you are still a good person. A person who feels guilt might say, ‘I feel awful seeing that I did something which violated my values’ or ‘I feel sorry about the consequences of my behaviours.’ In so doing the person’s values are reaffirmed. The possibility of repair exists and learning and growth are promoted.

Furthermore, guilt is a sign that a person can be empathetic, a characteristic that is important for one’s ability to take someone else’s perspective, behave altruistically, and have close, caring relationships (Kämmerer, 2019). When a person feels guilt, they put themselves in another’s shoes and recognise that their actions caused pain or were injurious to the other person. Moreover, guilt keeps us from hurting others and helps us to form relationships for the greater good. When we feel guilty, we shift our attention outward and pursue solutions to undo the damage that we have done.

Drake (2018) found that people who are prone to shame, believe that anything negative says something about who they are. No matter how big or small, every mistake makes you perceive yourself as a bad person rather than just making a mistake. Shame tends to have a cumulative effect; the worse you feel about yourself, you experience more shame. Instead of saying, “I did something wrong,” you say, “I’m a bad person.” This can contribute to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, which then affects all aspects of life.

Finally, the difference between shame and guilt may seem superficial, but it is crucial to understand it, so you can manage your own emotions in healthy ways and improve your relationships. Moving from shame to guilt is an important part of shifting from a self-hating mindset to a compassionate mindset. We all make mistakes, but your self-esteem doesn’t have to be affected by them. Instead, guilt can help us grow and learn from our experiences.

In part 4, we will examine The Origins of Shame


Darlene Lancer, J. (2016, May 17). Shame: The Core of Addiction and Codependency. Retrieved from

Drake, W. (2018, July 25). Guilt Vs. Shame: What’s the Difference And Why Does It Matter? Retrieved from

Kämmerer, A. (2019, August 09). The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame. Retrieved from

Schwartz, A. (n.d). Retrieved from

Raut, Y. (n.d.). Understanding the difference between guilt and shame can help us process feelings of failure. Retrieved from