The difference between shame and guilt

Guilt and shame may seem similar, but they are actually very different. Guilt is a feeling about a behaviour, whereas shame is a feeling about our very selves. We feel guilty about doing a bad thing, but we feel shame about who we are.

Though they may also blame themselves, people who are unable to bear feelings of shame are more likely to blame others, experiencing acrimony and bitterness. They may expect impossibly high standards from others and are easily offended when they aren’t met. They may find it difficult to see others’ point of view and express anger more than other emotions. People who feel guilt, meanwhile, are more able to empathise and to accept responsibility. Their moods tend to be less changeable than people who feel shame, and they’re more likely to express feelings clearly and without blame.

Shame sometimes develops in families where there is either a lot of volatility, or very little emotion expressed. Sometimes people communicate through competitive banter, which encourages everyone to be on their guard - and right. Not being right results in shame. Sometimes people’s approach is to deal very logically with feelings because this is easier to understand and manage, but it doesn’t help others to cope or soothe them - indeed, it can make them feel completely misunderstood. People who come from such families don’t usually see any problem. In fact, they may think they have the best sort of family. However, though these families may be extremely well-meaning and kind at heart, they don’t help one another to make sense of the world or to handle difficult feelings.

From our earliest days, we need help to interpret our emotions and for our feelings to be validated. When this doesn’t happen, we feel bad about ourselves and shame develops. In families where emotion is avoided, where the emotion shown is inappropriate or where family members vie with each other to be 'best', regardless of how this feels, there is no way of telling we’re okay. We look for increasingly black and white evidence of intentions and meaning and consequently misread them all the time. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, but it can be responsible for people falling out and for the development of terrible hurt. After a while, people grow suspicious and end up expecting to be hurt. This can have dreadful consequences for adult couple relationships which are experienced as dysregulating and competitive.

People deal with this in a number of ways, including splitting off negative feelings about themselves or others. Those with split off feelings may end up seeming unconcerned, or even bullying and unable to take responsibility. They may seem to expect respect, love, and attention as their right. Others may hide away their negative feelings to create a happy, organised persona whilst really feeling bad and responsible for everyone else’s feelings too. Though they may long for love and praise, they may find it uncomfortable to bear or suspect that it’s not genuine.

How has reading this made you feel? Is there anything you recognise or want to change in the way you behave towards others or that you’ve noticed about the way others treat you? Being curious about other people’s motives and your own automatic reactions can be a positive first step to moving on from shame and learning how to care for yourself more authentically - something that could be usefully discussed with your counsellor.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Aylesbury HP19 & London W1G

Written by Cate Campbell

Aylesbury HP19 & London W1G

Cate Campbell is a counsellor specialising in relationships, psychosexual therapy and trauma.

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