The Difference Between Guilt And Shame, And Why It Matters

The Difference Between Guilt And Shame, And Why It Matters

Shame tells you that you need to change everything. Guilt tells you that there are parts of you that are good, parts of you that are bad, but you just need to grow, not change.


My minister, Stephen, differentiates between the phenomena of guilt and shame with this sentiment:

"Guilt is good. It implies that you do bad things, sometimes. Shame is bad. It implies that you are bad."

It's a simple distinction, but one that matters, one with extremely profound implications. Guilt and shame are terms often used interchangeably in therapy and in dictionaries. A lot of the time, the two emotions are even felt interchangeably. But guilt implies that you can come back and repent and seek forgiveness for your actions. Shame implies that you can't be redeemed or saved, and even beyond a spiritual context, shame is much more problematic for any person to feel.

Shame is what tells you you're not good enough when you're taking a risk or trying something new. It is the feeling that you will never amount to anything. In the words of researcher Brene Brown, "shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior." Shame is correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, and suicide, while guilt is inversely correlated with all those things. So while shame leads to destruction, guilt leads to growth.

But I am not one to believe in overarching narratives, because I do believe each person is unique. What works for one person may be different from the other. According to Brown, shame needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence, and judgment. Shame is what tells you that you need to be perfect to be worthy. Guilt is what tells you that you already are worthy, and you just need to do the best you can to be a little better.

Shame is, in Brown's words, a global epidemic. In a religious sense, it tells us that we have to do this, that, and move mountains to even attempt to earn God's love. Living without shame, and only guilt tells us that we don't have to earn God's love - it's something we already have, and we just have to fine-tune the way we live with others and do the best we can. Shame tells you that you need to change everything. Guilt tells you that there are parts of you that are good, parts of you that are bad, but you just need to grow, not change.

In a psychological sense, shame is a relinquishing of control, and the feeling that whatever you do, however hard you try, you can't change things. Although outwardly you're not giving up, inwardly you are, because no matter how well you do, how much you accomplish, how many people you help, shame will always tell you it didn't mean anything and that it didn't matter. Shame tells you that you don't matter. While both guilt and shame are emotions that make you feel bad, guilt motivates you to fix what's wrong, while shame usually leads you to avoid the damage.

I'm writing this article and realizing that it sounds like there seems to be a huge distinction between guilt and shame. There is, and we should strive for guilt rather than shame. But the distinction between feeling the two is not so strong. A lot of us fall on some sort of spectrum - we feel shame about some things, we feel guilty about others. Very few of us lie on either of the extremes.

But Brene Brown says that there are shame-prone individuals and guilt-prone people. Some people say you should surround yourself with more guilt-prone people, but I don't believe in that notion, nor do I believe in categorizing people in my life in that way. "If we're going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy's the antidote to shame." And Brown believes that being the "man in the arena," per the great Teddy Roosevelt speech, is the way to feel empathy. Because when we step into someone else's chaos and arena, we feel what they feel.

According to Joaquin of the Positive Psychology Program, one way to remedy feelings of guilt and shame is through self-forgiveness. However, "people who are guilt-prone are more likely to self-forgive, while people who are shame-prone are less likely to self-forgive." This is an incredibly important distinction in psychological circles because self-forgiveness is a way to overcome these self-conscious feelings "without ignoring the real damage one may have caused that led to those feelings of guilt and shame."

While shame may be bad and guilt may be good, they are both important social emotions because they stop us from acting in self-interest. Yes, it's harder to act in a more beneficial way when we feel shame instead of guilt, but we all feel both, to some extent, and some of us feel one more than the other. I converted to Christianity this year because Christians I knew treated me with non-judgmental kindness, listened, and extended grace whenever I did wrong, and that's the kind of person I wanted to be to other people.

Joaquin ends his article saying that "guilt and shame are fundamentally meant to lead to a more empathetic and just society." That is something to remember when we are in the arena and think "I've made terrible decisions" or "I'm a terrible person." It's all meant to make us better people in relation to each other.

Popular Right Now

To The Guy Who Treated Me Like Crap

In many ways, I feel bad that you could never see how amazing I am.

Dear (insert guy's name here),

I’m sorry that I acted as your footstool for so long. You treated me terribly, and for some reason, I couldn’t see that. I only saw you as someone who liked me and wanted to be with me (at least, that’s what I thought). I was like a little puppy dog following you around, completely loving and loyal. I was always waiting for you to text me, posting Snapchat stories for the sole purpose of knowing you would see them and always hoping you would come around when I was out with my friends so I could show you off.

No matter how hard I wanted us to work out, I now realize it never would have.

You weren’t right for me because you treated me like I was your inferior. You were always talking to other girls, flirting with them, and treating me like a child. You were so selfish. Only doing what you wanted and coming around when you felt like it and taking advantage of me. You made me feel crazy when I got mad at you for all the little things. I was so caught up in you that I tried to ignore all of the signals right in front of me.

You just weren’t right for me.

I now know that the right guy for me is the one who respects me and chooses me over everyone else. The guy who never makes me feel insane for questioning something, the guy who understands when he’s done something wrong and can live with the consequences. You just simply couldn’t provide that for me. In many ways, I feel bad that you could never see how amazing I am.

While I may have been so upset when our relationship ended, it made me realize who I am and what I deserve. I deserve so much more than someone putting in 50 percent. I deserve an endless amount of respect and communication. Putting in your all for a relationship when they can’t do the same is not healthy and it’s childish. I hope someday you can find a girl that you can love infinitely but I take a lot of pride in knowing that girl won’t be me. I may be single for a really long time or I may find the one tomorrow, either way, I have so much hope that one day someone can give me their all and make me feel incredible.

For now, I’m done wasting my time on guys like you who make me feel miserable.

The One Who Got Away

Cover Image Credit: Trinity Kubassek

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

Thanks To The Jonas Brothers, I Never Regret Not Dating A Teenage Boy

Ya'll made it drama free.


All thanks to three guys from New Jersey, I never regret not having a boyfriend in Middle or High School. I started listening to the Jonas Brothers when I was in 6th grade. I was awkward, I wanted to fit in simply because I was the minority in my mostly white school district. I also wanted to feel more independent since I was reaching the ripe age of 13.

Eventually, certain things came to me where I was able to gain that independence. I had no problem talking to certain adults simply because I would just be myself, and they would have absolutely no issue with it. Then came Nick, Kevin, and Joe. They already had one album out called 'It's About Time', and too contrary belief became a classic for them to date. Eventually, as they made their approach to the Disney Channel, their popularity increased more and more. Soon enough, everyone knew of them. Even if they didn't even listen to their music, they still knew about them.

I was what you called the stereotypical 'fangirl.' I was overly protective of them whenever I would hear any guy in school call them 'gay' 'ugly' or 'untalented'. In fact, I'm very thankful that social media was not as big yet. I could not imagine going off as much as I would imagine. But there were other ways to vent. I still had some of my friends relate, but even with that, a good portion of them would tell me to stop being obsessed with them. But that only allowed my obsession to grow.

Everything that they did was a news update for me. I had to keep up with them ALL the time, no matter what the condition was. I had to know what they were doing every single day. Okay, not to a point of stalking but you get the picture. My point is that no other boy mattered at the time other than them. Joe was my favorite one so I had to keep up with him the most. Especially when he was dating someone. Yes, I will admit that some of Joe's exes were not my favorite, yet I shipped the hell out of the other ones. But I will say now that as a grown woman I am no longer interfering with his relationship. I was always wondering what it would be like to even go on a date around that age.

I never went on one considering how weird teenage boys truly are. Some of them want a girlfriend simply just to have one, and others just had their hormones go all nuts. The reason why I wasn't heavy on dating during that time was simply that I was trying to focus on myself and who I truly was. I did not want to deal with any of the drama that came with a relationship because I had a lot more than I needed to worry about.

Yes, did I want a guy that I thought was hot to date me of course! But it turns out looking back on it, I'm grateful that I decided to not give him the time of day. Considering that nowadays he's not exactly the right person to be with anyway. Even in general, I'm glad I never had to worry about fighting with another girl about another guy. A total complete waste of time, and not worth sacrificing anything.

I realized that there was so much more to life than just having a guy like you. Even if you did get those weird feelings every time he was around. Also if it was the other way around where a guy liked you, and you just didn't like him back. What a complicated web the teenage years hold. But back to the Jo-Bros. I'm grateful that these guys were in my life because it distracted me from the realities of how teenage boys truly are. You know, the ones that don't sing to you and tell you-you're beautiful every five seconds.

I'm grateful for all the memories that I had with these guys, especially making endless books and PowerPoint presentations on why I loved them so much. Although I'll still keep up with them once in a blue moon, it doesn't mean that I'll forget my first love. Just because I'm not in a room where they've plastered all over the walls anymore, doesn't mean that I didn't cherish those times when I would beg my mom to get me the latest teen magazine. If they were not in it, I didn't want it! Plain and simple everyone remembers their first teen crush. But I'm grateful that these three brothers allowed me to not get distracted by the teen dating scene. Also, I think it helped out my father as well.

Related Content

Facebook Comments