The issue at play here, though, is more important that simply discovering the dictionary definitions of two words because the causes and effects of – and responses to – guilt and shame are markedly different.
And, because the misinterpretation or misunderstanding of either emotion can be so influential both to how we feel about ourselves and how we act towards others, it’s important to recognise them for what they are.
At the most basic level, the main difference is that guilt is concerned with your actions and shame is concerned with who you are. Of course, many of us would say that our characters are defined in many ways by what we do, but the emotions we ascribe to those actions need not reflect our whole persona.
And that means that we can feel guilt without shame but not feel shame without guilt.
For example, studies have found how guilt and shame have very different effects on our behaviour:
- Research published in January showed that guilt led to increased behaviour that benefitted others, whereas shame decreased the same types of behavior.
- Studies into anger and aggression showed that a proneness to feel shame correlated with anger, suspicion, resentment, irritability and a tendency to blame others whereas those who felt guilt were less likely to blame others, get angry or feel resentment.
- Guilt seems to be linked to empathy after researchers found those prone to feeling guilt were good at identifying emotions from facial expressions whereas those who felt shame weren’t.
- A review of four studies show that how closely we feel to a group determines whether we feel guilt or shame – those who don’t identify well with the group tend to feel shame when that group’s social norms are transgressed whereas those who identify well with the group feel guilt.
- Shame-prone children tend more to grow up and use illegal drugs more frequently and have more unprotected sex, whereas guilt-prone children are less likely to grow up to engage in risky and illegal behaviour.
We are highly unlikely to ever leave feelings of guilt and shame behind – and in many ways they can be useful emotions in terms of controlling how we see ourselves in relation to society. But recognising both emotions for what they are and understanding how they have arisen allows us to avoid becoming obsessed by them.
Obsessive guilt and allowing yourself to be governed by feelings of shame create downward spirals and low self-esteem, and can contribute to issues such as anxiety, addiction and depression.
If you feel that emotions of shame and guilt are getting the better of you, our psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists can help. For more information, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, call us on 09 973 5950, or contact us via the website.