Guilt or Shame? There is a Difference

A recent study conducted on the power of self-labels asked participants to decide whether or not to take money they hadn’t earned. One group was told the study aimed to eliminate cheating on college campuses; the other group was told the study aimed to eliminate cheaters. In general, participants for whom the decision was framed as cheating were much more likely to take money than those who believed they’d be cheaters.

What’s the big difference between “cheating” and “cheaters?” The answer—as well as the study’s outcome—has a lot to do with the distinction between shame and guilt. “Cheating” describes what you’re doing, while “cheater” describes who you are. Shame and guilt work in parallel ways: if you’re feeling guilty, you’re concerned about your behavior. If you’re feeling shame, your discontent is tied up in who you are as a person.

What is guilt?

Guilt has to do with the way you process your actions—what you’ve done, what you’ve failed to do, and how those things affected the people in your life. You can be wholly accepting of yourself, and still feel guilt.

Guilt can sound like this:

“I feel terrible that I had to let my employee go.”

“I said something hurtful to a close friend, and wish I could make it right.”

“It’s really bothering me that I didn’t pick up the phone when my mother called.”

Researcher Brene Brown believes guilt is a helpful tool. Guilt simply means that you’ve measured an action against your personal values and beliefs, and discovered friction. Feelings of guilt compel you to live consistently and in a way that feels right to you. Guilt tells you that the connections you have with other people really matter.

What is shame?

Shame is a belief that you’re fundamentally unworthy of love and support. Shame boils up out of fear: you’re afraid of being emotionally vulnerable, you’re afraid that you don’t deserve real connection with others, or you’re afraid you’re not yet whole.

Shame sounds like this:

“I’ll start dating when I fix this list of things I think are wrong with me.”

“If I make a mistake, I won’t be able to live with myself.”

“I don’t want to be close to anyone because I don’t want anyone to know who I really am.”

In short, shame tells you that you’re not good enough. Shame misleads you, telling you that if you’ve been mistreated or neglected, the reason has to do with you. Shame feels the same no matter who you are. You believe your flaws are fatal.

Shame perpetuates the harmful myths that you can’t be vulnerable, that you have to hold in your pain forever, and that the only way to live without negative self-directed feelings is to numb them. Large amounts of shame often coexist with aggression toward others, eating disorders, suicide, and addiction.

What’s the antidote to shame?

If you’re unable to extend a compassionate hand to yourself, it’s hard to have the time or emotional energy to feel compassionate toward others. Shame is also harmful for other reasons: In the attempt to numb your bad feelings, you might just numb the good ones too.

Brene Brown believes the most powerful responses to shame are empathy and vulnerability—allowing yourself to be truly seen without knowing or being able to control the outcome. Vulnerability is often mistakenly linked to weakness, but in reality, the opposite is true; opening up to yourself and others is a courageous emotional risk to take. Looking into a realistic mirror requires having strength and compassion to not condemn what you see—an internal well that you can learn to tap into and appreciate.