By Irina Vanzhula, M.S
Everyone experiences shame and guilt at times. While these emotions can be helpful in guiding our social behavior, they can also bring a lot of discomfort and even trigger depression and other psychological disorders, such as eating disorders. Let’s differentiate between shame and guilt, describe in which situations they can be useful or harmful, and discuss how to cope with them.
Guilt is an unpleasant emotion about something we have done. It is often used synonymously to remorse, meaning that we regret the action, and guilt may involve sadness and empathy towards the person harmed. Guilt is generally seen as a useful emotion that encourages us to follow moral and societal norms. For example, we may feel guilty about lying to a friend or skipping a volunteering shift at the local shelter. Guilt may also occur if we act inconsistently with our personal values. For example, someone who values family above all else may feel particularly guilty about skipping a family holiday dinner.
In contrast to guilt that involves feelings about an act one has done, shame involves negative feelings about oneself. Shame encompasses a feeling of inferiority and perceiving oneself as a small, lesser person, worthless, and a failure. Another way to differentiate guilt and shame is by what the emotion urges us to do: guilt usually triggers a desire to apologize and redeem oneself, while shame may lead to a desire to hide or escape. Although shame can be helpful in some situations (i.e. serious wrongdoing) and is used in programs redeeming violent offenders (Loeffler, 2009), it generally is associated with increased distress and may lead to depression, self-harm, and disordered eating (Muris, 2015).
Feelings of guilt can also be harmful if it is based on an irrational belief, such as feeling guilty for something that was not our fault. For example, if we witness an injustice, we may feel guilty because we think we could have done something to prevent it. Guilt can also transform into shame if a “bad” action is interpreted as having occurred because one is a “bad” person. Example: “I feel guilty that I didn’t visit my family this month” can lead to two different outcomes: 1) Call or visit the family to release the guilt or 2) Feelings of shame because “I am a bad son.” The problem with feeling shame in the second scenario is that it may lead the individual to further avoid visiting family and feeling even more shame.
How then can we cope with guilt and shame? First, check your guilt or shame statement for accuracy. Was it really your fault? Can you think of anyone or anything else that may have contributed to the situation? Make a list of any other possible causes and state how much you think each cause contributed in percentage. Then add up all the percentages and subtract from 100%: How much is left? You may want to do this exercise with someone else who can help you see all the perspectives.
To cope with shame, it can be very helpful to examine the evidence and rewrite shame statements into statements of guilt. For example, if you got frustrated and yelled at your child, does it really mean that you are a bad parent? Generally, we want to change the statement from “There is something wrong with me” to “I have done something wrong.” Most of the time, a guilt reaction is more accurate than shame.
Statement of shame: I yelled at my child again! I am a terrible parent.
Statement of guilt: I feel guilty about yelling at my child.
What if you truly have done something bad and can’t shake the regret or shame? Think back to the situation and answer these questions: What purpose did this action serve to you at the time? What did it help you accomplish? What would have happened if you didn’t make that choice in the moment? It’s easy to see what we did wrong looking back and knowing what we know now; it’s called hindsight bias. Most often, we make the best decision based on what we knew at the time.
Finally, if logic and reason are not helpful in dealing with guilt and shame, practice self-compassion. Most of us are very good at being compassionate towards others, but find it hard to be compassionate to ourselves. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or beating ourselves up with self-criticism. Imagine that your close friend or a loved one tells you about their guilt or shame, what would you say to them? Say those words to yourself. You can also find many useful self-compassion exercises on Cristin Neff’s website http://self-compassion.org.