Guilt and shame are like conjoined twins. In the context of therapy, they’re often mentioned in the same breath. People typically talk about them like a package – as though we can't have one without the other. But if we take out our conceptual scalpels and split them apart, we’re likely to see that guilt and shame are actually fundamentally different from one another. But just what are those differences?
Disclaimer: We All Experience Feelings Differently
Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge my own very biased position on this subject. While I do have my own particular understandings of guilt and shame – which are largely informed by the many conversations I've had with people in the counselling room – I want to be clear on my belief that there is no single true, objective definition of guilt and shame…or any other emotional experience for that matter. As responses to events in our lives, we all experience emotions differently from one another. This is why I don't believe that I have the authority to tell anyone how or when they should experience any particular feeling – and I would be wary of anyone who speaks as though they have that authority.
I tend to see guilt as the emotional response to going against some personally meaningful moral, ethic, value, or principle. It's the feeling we’re most likely to experience when we do something we think is wrong. That might involve lying, cheating, betraying someone's trust, or acting in opposition to our belief systems.
Because I believe that all feelings serve a purpose, I generally understand guilt as acting sort of like a retrospective conscience or moral compass: it tells us when we’ve gone off course. Many of the people who consult with me describe how they experience guilt when faced with difficult decisions with no clear “right” option. This leaves them having to compromise their morals or ethics in some unfortunate way, which they then feel guilty about. Instances like these are sometimes described as “moral injuries”, and can be very traumatic.
In my own personal experience, guilt does not feel good, and I believe that is by design. As far as emotions go, guilt serves a corrective function. Because it’s unpleasant to sit with for any length of time, it is something to avoid - and rightly so. For most people, it’s unlikely that they’ll spend all that much time with guilt if they do their best to stick to their ethical guns and act in ways that align with their values. There is, however, guilt that is unfairly imposed and unwarranted, which fits outside of typical scenarios in which we might experience it. I’ll address that below.
I understand shame in a much different light than guilt. Whereas guilt is often a response to violating personally meaningful principles, shame has more to do with social and cultural norms and expectations. It’s how we might feel – or how we might be regarded by others – if we go against social norms, values, or beliefs. I often see shame as being more imposed by the outside world than its cousin, guilt.
If guilt serves the purpose of keeping us on course with our own values and ethics, I usually see shame as keeping us socially in line. For better or for worse, shame discourages people from stepping outside of what is considered “appropriate”, “acceptable”, or “normal”. This is evident in many of the expectations we hold for people based on their gender. According to the prescribed gender roles of the dominant culture, it may be considered shameful for a man to cry or show interest in things considered “womanly”. At the same time, a woman may be regarded with shame for freely enjoying sex, or choosing not to have children. These are just a couple examples of how shame can operate.
When Are Shame and Guilt Helpful or Harmful?
As I alluded to above, guilt can have some helpful implications – even though it certainly doesn’t feel good. As for shame…I’m not sold on its helpfulness. In my experience of talking with folks about their relationships to guilt and shame, shame often functions in more punishing and undermining ways. If we were to personify them both, guilt could be likened to a sort of Jiminy Cricket character, with high moralistic and ethical leanings. Shame, on the other hand, may be more like a highly critical parent or other authority figure, who doesn’t make much room to celebrate our strengths.
When we’re in positions to evaluate the helpfulness of emotions like guilt and shame, regardless of the context in which we experience them, this question can come in handy: who does it serve? I can attest to the helpfulness of occasionally experiencing guilt – particularly after acting in ways that didn’t fit with the ways I want to carry myself in the world. At these times, guilt has reminded me that I was off base. It doesn’t feel great, and it’s certainly humbling, but it has helped me to live in more ethically congruent ways. If I was to ask who guilt serves in these instances, I would have to say, “me”, because it helps me remember to stay on the path I choose to walk.
If we were to ask the same question about shame, would the answer be the same? Based on my experience, I’m inclined to say, “no” – or at least “less so”. If we consider examples like the ones above (about gendered expectations our society holds for men and women), who does shame serve in those instances? Maybe those who benefit from people upholding the status quo? Maybe the patriarchal system? But I’m not so inclined to say that it benefits the people experiencing it.
How Guilt and Shame are Passed Along
Through my explorations of guilt and shame in the therapy room, I’ve noticed that they’re often transmitted in a couple of key ways:
The jury is still out on whether morals and ethics are inborn or learned. Do we believe it’s wrong to lie or kill because that’s what we’re taught from the moment we enter the world, or are those biases essential to our humanity? I think they’re a bit of both.
It’s undeniable that there are widespread moral and ethical guidelines in every culture. If we find these culturally sanctioned expectations agreeable, we can adopt them in more personalized ways that fit with the value systems we choose to live by. It’s at this point that we might experience guilt or shame if we act in ways that go against these principles. The crux of which emotion (guilt or shame) we experience more prevalently lies in how personally meaningful the particular value or principle is. If it’s more meaningful, then we might experience more guilt than shame when we act against it.
One thing I’ve noticed is that both guilt and shame can be imposed through the words and actions of others. This is tricky business because guilting or shaming another person can be done in subtle ways. Nonetheless, many of the folks I consult with have shared accounts of other people supporting guilt or shame through things they say and do.
Here’s an example of what I mean: In mainstream Canadian culture, there’s an idea that we should love (or at least like) our parents, and be there for them as they age and their health deteriorates. Now suppose that someone was badly abused and mistreated by their father growing up, and they (understandably) didn’t want much to do with him as they entered adulthood. Let’s also suppose that this person is not alone in their sentiments, and in fact next to no one has shown up to support him in his old age and illness. Then one day he picks up the phone and calls his grownup offspring in a somewhat desperate plea for help. He plays up the reality that no one has come to visit, and refers to the fact that he helped raise this person, and how they’re now nowhere to be found.
This kind of interaction points to a common variety of moral dilemma in which the subject (the adult child) has personally meaningful reasons not to visit their father, but is presented with guilt-supporting sentiments that make that difficult. In simple terms, it's a guilt trip. These kinds of messages can be packaged in all sorts of clever ways around situations that someone otherwise might feel quite confident and guilt-free.
Shame can be imposed in similar ways, and is often done with more implicit cruelty. This might look like laughing at someone for making a mistake or committing a social faux pas, or humiliating someone in front of a larger group. When shame is imposed on us, it’s typically done through judgment (or the threat of judgment), and the pointing out of so-called undesirable behaviours or characteristics.
When either guilt or shame are imposed through the words or actions of others, it’s highly unlikely that the answer to the question, “who does this serve?” would be “me”. In most cases, people subject others to guilt or shame as a means of gaining power and control in social interactions and relationships. For this reason, I’m not inclined to believe that they can be particularly helpful under these circumstances.
Navigating Guilt and Shame
If you find yourself experiencing guilt and/or shame, that need not be an indication that there’s something wrong with you or your thinking. As I’ve stated in past blog posts, our emotions are context-bound, and therefore they make sense when we experience them. They may not always be how we want to feel, but they’re there for a reason. The same can be said for guilt and shame.
If you’re trying to discern the helpfulness or harmfulness of guilt and shame in your own life, these questions might help:
- When do you notice yourself feeling guilty or shameful?
- When are you guilt or shame free?
- What’s different between those instances?
- If guilt or shame were trying to tell you something, what might that be?
- How constructive is the message they might be trying to send?
- Is the message constructive or oppressive?
- Considering the context you’re experiencing guilt or shame in, would it truly be better if you didn’t feel that way at all?
- If guilt or shame had a voice of its own, which person in your life would it sound most similar to?
- If guilt or shame had a mission statement, whose agenda would that most closely approximate?
How do you understand guilt and shame?
How do my ideas fit and differ with yours?
When have you found guilt or shame to be helpful? How about unhelpful?
Have you considered exploring or changing your relationship to shame or guilt?