The Difference Between Guilt and Shame

Both shame and guilt arise due to evaluations of ourselves and our consciousness of others' perception and evaluation of us.

What is the difference between guilt and shame? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

To answer this question, I want you to think back to a time when you behaved in a way that you know you shouldn’t have, when you did something that you know is either morally, ethically, or socially inappropriate. When you reflect on your behavior, do you think “My behavior was bad” or do you think “I am a bad person”? Therein lies a crucial difference between shame and guilt.

Both shame and guilt are self-conscious emotions, in that they arise due to evaluations of ourselves and our consciousness of others' perception and evaluation of us. The study of both shame and guilt are fundamental topics in psychology, and one of the most debated questions among researchers is how shame and guilt differ from one another. There are many answers to this question present in the literature, with traditional arguments relating to the social nature of each emotion. Such that, many scholars argue that shame occurs when one feels they have lost the respect of others, whereas guilt occurs when one feels they have lost the respect of themselves. Personally, I think the distinction made by H. B. Lewis in the early 1970s is the most illuminating, that “Shame is distinctively related to the entire self, and guilt is tied to some specific behavior”.

As such, when we feel shame, we are negatively evaluating part of our sense of self (e.g., ‘if only I weren’t so…, ‘if only I were more...’), whilst guilt relates to negative evaluation of our behavior (e.g., ‘if only I hadn’t done…’, ‘if only I had done…’). Hence, shame feels much more personal and painful than does guilt. Consider again whether you thought “My behavior was bad” or “I am a bad person” when reflecting on a past wrongdoing.

These cognitive appraisals lead to differences in feelings of control and thus different behavioral outcomes. For example, believing ‘you are a bad person’ reduces perceived control over your ability to change and can give rise to feelings of powerlessness, worthlessness, and even problematic behaviors (e.g., risk taking and substance use) and denial. On the other hand, feeling guilty does not reduce perceived control, rather it increases the motivation to make amends and likelihood of future behavior change.

But that is not to say that all shame is bad, in fact a little shame can be a good thing. Much like guilt, shame can motivate a willingness to make amends with those who have been wronged, and lead to positive behavior change. However, because shame is directly related to an evaluation of oneself, individuals with a weak or unstable sense of self, low self-esteem, poor mental health, and psychological maladjustment in general are more likely to experienced negative coping.

Evidently, the differences between shame and guilt are subtle but undeniably important and it appears as though our cognitive appraisals alongside our underlying psychological adjustment or maladjustment decides which way the scale tips.

This question originally appeared on Quora.

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