Guilt vs Shame: Understanding the Differences

When it comes to emotions, guilt and shame are often used interchangeably. However, they are different emotions that have different effects on an individual’s psyche. While guilt prompts an individual to take corrective actions, shame can lead to self-deprecation and self-loathing.

What is Guilt?

Guilt is an emotion that stems from the realization of having done something wrong. It is a reaction to an individual’s own actions that violate their personal values or moral code. Guilt often leads to feelings of remorse or regret, and the individual may feel the need to make amends for their actions. In other words, guilt is a productive emotion, as it prompts an individual to take constructive actions to remedy their mistakes.

What is Shame?

Shame, on the other hand, is a negative emotion that arises from an individual’s perception of themselves being flawed, inadequate or unworthy. It’s not necessarily based on a specific event or action but more on a belief system that has been internalized overtime. Shame focuses on the individual’s sense of self, rather than their behavior. Shame can be crippling as it leads to feelings of inferiority, anxiety or depression. It can impact an individual’s self-esteem and self-worth, leading to self-isolation and a disconnection from society.

Why is it Important to Differentiate Between Guilt and Shame?

It is crucial to differentiate between guilt and shame as both emotions produce different responses and outcomes. When individuals experience guilt, they typically take accountability for their actions, and this leads to corrective behaviors, which in turn fosters a sense of self-improvement. Individuals experiencing shame, on the other hand, may not take constructive actions, leading to a lack of personal growth or improvement. Furthermore, the internalization of shame can lead to long-term mental health issues like depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders.

Real-Life Examples

Let’s demonstrate the difference with a hypothetical example: Anna promised her daughter that she would attend her school play, but due to unforeseen circumstances outside of her control, she couldn’t make it to the event. In this situation, Anna will experience guilt as she’s failed to keep her promise to her daughter. However, this guilt will prompt her to make amends with her daughter, by apologizing and celebrating the play’s success with her family afterward.

.On the other hand, if Anna had a deeply held belief that she wasn’t a good mother or that she was unworthy of her daughter’s love, she would feel shame for being absent at the school play. Although guilt may be in this situation, shame will hinder Anna’s ability to take constructive actions; she may isolate herself from her daughter or overcompensate by overindulging her daughter to win her love and affection.

The Repercussions of Shame

Shame can affect an individual’s mental and physical health in many ways. It can lead to the following:

  • Low Self-Esteem: Shame can lead to an individual feeling worthless and unimportant.
  • Anxiety and Depression: Individuals experiencing shame tend to isolate themselves from others, leading to feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
  • Eating Disorders: Shame can contribute to disordered eating patterns, leading to conditions like anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder.
  • Substance Abuse Disorders: Individuals experiencing shame may turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism to escape their feelings of inadequacy.

The Healing Journey

Healing from shame is not an overnight process; it requires patience, compassion, and resilience. Here are a few ways individuals can begin the healing journey:

  • Self-Awareness: Individuals should seek to understand the origins of their shame and how it has shaped their belief system.
  • Self-Compassion: Individuals should practice self-compassion, focusing on their strengths and positive attributes.
  • Professional Support: Seeking professional support from mental health professionals who specialize in trauma and shame-related disorders can provide insights and tools to overcome shame.
  • Fostering Healthy Relationships: Engaging in healthy relationships with individuals who accept and appreciate them can promote feelings of worthiness and positive self-worth.
  • Self-Care: Engaging in exercise, sleep hygiene, and proper nutrition can lead to improved mental and physical health.


Guilt and shame, while often used interchangeably, are different emotions that have different effects on an individual’s mental and physical health. While guilt can foster personal growth and self-improvement, shame can lead to self-loathing, isolation and mental health disorders in the long run. By increasing self-awareness, practicing self-compassion and seeking professional support, individuals can overcome their shame and foster healthy relationships with themselves and others.


FAQs about Guilt Vs Shame

1. What is the difference between guilt and shame?

Guilt is the feeling of remorse or regret about something we have done wrong or failed to do. It is often a temporary feeling that can motivate us to make amends and improve our behavior. Shame, on the other hand, is a deeper feeling of inadequacy or unworthiness that can result from a perceived flaw or shortcoming in ourselves. It is often a more intense and persistent feeling that can lead to self-destructive behaviors.

2. Can guilt and shame coexist?

Yes, guilt and shame can coexist and often do so. For example, someone may feel guilty for cheating on a test but also feel ashamed of themselves for being a “bad” person. When guilt and shame coexist, it can be difficult to separate the two feelings and address them separately. However, it is important to recognize the difference between the two and work on addressing the root cause of the shame.

3. How can we overcome feelings of shame?

Overcoming feelings of shame can be a difficult and ongoing process. Some ways to work through shame include therapy, introspection, self-care, and building a support system. It is important to identify the underlying negative beliefs or messages that are contributing to the shame and work to challenge and reframe them. With time and effort, it is possible to heal from feelings of shame and cultivate a sense of self-acceptance and self-worth.


1. Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and guilt. Guilford Press.
2. Lewis, H. B. (1971). Shame and guilt in neurosis. International Universities Press.
3. Gerlsma, C., & Evers, C. (1994). Shame and guilt: A review of the literature. European Journal of Psychiatry, 8(2), 95-107.