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Shame versus guilt: Here's how to tell them apart!

"Shame" and "guilt" are words that are often uttered in the same breath. And there are some important similarities, but there are also some notable differences that are well-worth considering, especially in the context of compassion focused therapy (CFT).

Just to set the scene, shame and guilt are similar from the point of view that they are both self-conscious emotions arising from our higher order brain capacities for self-awareness, self-monitoring and self-criticism, and having a keen sense of how we are seen in the minds of others. As a hyper-social species, we are particularly concerned with whether others approve of us, and whether we are seen as worthy and valued members of the group.

But, shame and guilt are rooted in distinct emotional and motivational systems, and this is where some notable differences start to emerge.

What is Shame?

Shame relates to a global negative sense of self and the perception that others (external shame) or ourselves (internal shame) see us as inferior, inadequate, unlovable and no good.

"I am bad."

Shame is linked to the evolutionary dynamics of social competition, social reputation, and social acceptance. Our position and status in the group is the focus, and shame results from threats to our social rank and our sense of feeling securely part of the group.

Not everyone feels the urge to go up in social ranking, but most of us feel the discomfort and pain of being down-ranked. Thus, shame is associated with social competition, striving to avoid inferiority, and generally focused on maintaining our place in the group, our social bonds and our self-image. Shame is about social threat, much of it arising from the threat system.

Shame is a multi-textured emotion, coming along with emotions such as anxiety, anger or disgust. We take the external (how we are seen in the minds of others) and bring it internal (how we begin to see ourselves), and so shame is related to self-attacking, self-hating forms of self-criticism. Unfortunately, this leads to an increased vulnerability to a variety of mental health problems.

What is Guilt?

Guilt, in contrast, involves a recognition of our specific harmful behaviours. When we do something wrong, or hurt or harm someone, especially someone we care about, then we feel guilt.

"I did something bad."

Guilt is linked to a very different evolved emotional and motivational system: a caring motivation associated with the soothing/affiliative system. We evolved to have powerful motivations for caring for others and avoiding causing them harm. When we do cause harm we feel a desire to repair or make amends. In fact, even the anticipation of guilt and its negative effects will motivate us away from harmful behaviours and towards caring and connection.

When we do cause harm and experience guilt, it is often accompanied by feelings of sadness and remorse, but also the desire to make amends. Interestingly, guilt is much more weakly associated with mental health difficulties than shame, although, when we take more responsibility for things that have gone wrong than we need to, or we are unable to make amends, then guilt can be very persistent, and sometimes become internalised, shifting from "I did something bad" (guilt) to "I am bad" (shame).

Why Does This Matter?

Well, shame tends to make us feel small, motivating us to hide ourselves away, curl up in a ball and bury our face in our hands. Or sometimes shame can shift to humiliation, causing us to feel enraged or seek vengeance. This is the threat system and related urges to flee or fight off the social threat.

Guilt, on the other hand, tends to make us remorseful, motivating us to approach others in order to repair relationships. Our caring motivations are activated, and we begin to take steps towards making amends. Ultimately, feelings of guilt can activate the core human motivation of compassion, and our wish and commitment to be helpful, not harmful, to ourselves and others.

And this is why it really matters. In CFT, we work towards gently moving from shame to guilt, and then from guilt to compassion for others and for ourselves. This can be very powerful. But it's not easy, and sometimes a place to start is to thoroughly explore the differences between them, understanding the evolved emotional and motivational systems, and through mind awareness and understanding start to make the shift.

This article was written after extensive discussions with Dr Marcela Matos as we prepared for an upcoming workshop on working with shame via CFT, and is based on the work of Professor Paul Gilbert*.

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