What’s the difference between guilt and shame? Shame lies. Basically, guilt is a healthy feeling and shame is an unhealthy feeling. Let’s take a closer look.

What Is Guilt?

When we’ve done something wrong, we feel guilty. Maybe we had unhealthy thoughts that led to unhealthy behaviors. Perhaps we  hurt a friend or did something we shouldn’t like cheating or stealing. Guilt brings remorse and regret. Guilt tells us we violated our own morals, our own consciousness.

We learn guilt early in our childhood; it’s part of our healthy developmental process. Guilt drives us to admit our errors and mistakes to ourselves and others. Guilt says “I did a stupid thing, but I am not stupid.” It causes temporary pain but ends in healing.  The 12-step-programs focus on guilt. We learn to take responsibility for our behaviors and then make amends as needed.

For example, Liddy is very angry at her 3-year-old son, Ben, for breaking a family keepsake. Her anger may be normal, but when Liddy starts screaming at Ben, her behavior has become inappropriate. When Ben starts sobbing and wets his pants, Liddy realizes she was too harsh, and she feels guilty for losing control.

Because guilt is focused on taking responsibility and making apologies, Liddy is able to tell Ben she was wrong to yell at him and make amends by cuddling with him. She apologizes for her behavior and tells herself that she cannot do this again. She also tells Ben’s father about the incident to accept responsibility and ask for help. Her openness prevents secret keeping and helps her to understand that hurting a toddler is wrong. She may have regrets about yelling, but understands that everyone makes mistakes and vows to do better.

What Is Shame

Shame is a different story. Shame is the only feeling that lies to us. It’s not about doing a bad thing; shame is about feeling bad to our core.  In our shame, we think we are terrible, horrible, sick, bad, and worthless. We feel unworthy, and believe the mistakes cannot be healed. In the book Facing Shame: Families in Recovery, Fossum and Mason state:

“Shame is an inner sense of being completely diminished or insufficient as a person. It is the self judging the self. A moment of shame may be humiliation so painful or an indignity so profound that one feels one has been robbed of her or his dignity or exposed as basically inadequate, bad, or worthy of rejection. A pervasive sense of shame is the ongoing premise that one is fundamentally bad, inadequate, defective, unworthy, or not fully valid as a human being.”

Let’s revisit the incident between Liddy and and her young son Ben. This time, instead of feeling guilt, Liddy spirals into shame. After she screams at him, she feels so horrible that she internalizes shame. She tells herself she’s a horrible person, unworthy of having children. Drowning in her own pain, Liddy isn’t able to take care of her son when he needs her. Instead, they both end up sobbing.

The next time Ben is naughty, Liddy cannot bring herself to correct him. Because the focus is solely on her, she loses all capacity to cope with him. Liddy further blames herself for Ben’s bad behavior because shame has lied to her. Shame told her she was a bad parent. This creates a shame spiral where Liddy now becomes inept in her parenting capacity.

Shame is too often felt in dysfunctional families. Remember, shame lies, and it’s often a sign of emotional abuse.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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