Shame or Guilt

Table of Contents

What is embarrassment? The act of blaming yourself when things go wrong? Art Markman Ph.D. wrote: “there are two distinct emotions we commonly experience—guilt and shame.” Which one you experience tells something about who you are.


How It’s Defined

When you do something wrong, or perceive that you have done so you experience guilt.


How It’s Defined

When you define shame, you do so by defining yourself as wrong. This can be your behavior or a specific event that you were involved in.

How Shame Is Shaped

How things are shaped in our lives comes down to what we experience. Everyday, from our first to our last, we make experiences, some are consciously interpreted, others, which also play a role in who we are are subconscious.

How it Affects Us

Shame affects everyone differently. Men and women supposedly experience shame in different ways, with men acting out while women tend to act inwards. To me that definition is based on extroverted and introverted behavior respectively. Men are more extroverted in their behavior, thus it is reasonable to estimate their reactions are directed outward as well.

How Shame Happens

Your self-esteem was shaped by your daily experiences of being praised or criticized, lovingly disciplined or punished, taken care of or neglected.

People who grow up in abusive environments can easily get the message that they are undeserving, inadequate, and inferior—in other words, that they should feel ashamed.

Over time, intense feelings of shame can take hold of a person’s self-image and create low self-esteem. Feelings of shame often stem from what other people think. The person may become super-sensitive to what feels like criticism, even if it isn’t, and may feel rejected by others. Inside, they feel painful self-contempt and worthlessness.

Researchers studying the role of biology in the development of shame-based low self-esteem are focusing some of their attention on serotonin, a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) in the brain. They are exploring the possibility that low levels of serotonin may contribute to submissive behavior leading to feelings of shame.

Evidence is increasing that serious problems can occur when shame gets deeply woven into a person’s self-image and sense of self-worth.  What Is Self-Concept?

Shame for People With BPD

Someone who feels deep-seated shame and low self-esteem may not realize that it’s the motivation for many destructive behaviors, which can include substance abuse, eating disorders, road rage, domestic violence, and many other personal and social crises.

People who experience traumatic events are also likely to feel shame, particularly if they blame themselves for what happened. In people with BPD, deep-seated shame may account, in part, for their higher rates of suicidal behavior and self-injury.

Shame also affects men differently from women. It’s said that men with shame-based low self-esteem tend to “act out” through anger and violent behavior toward others, while women “act in” by turning their feelings inward and hating themselves.

Although many people use the two words “guilt” and “shame” interchangeably, from a psychological perspective, they actually refer to different experiences. Guilt and shame sometimes go hand in hand; the same action may give rise to feelings of both shame and guilt, where the former reflects how we feel about ourselves and the latter involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else. In other words, shame relates to self; guilt to others. I think it’s useful to preserve this distinction, even though the dictionary definitions often blur it.

Guilt: a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.

Shame: the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.

According to Dictionary.com, then, guilt involves the awareness of having done something wrong; it arises from our actions (even if it might be one that occurs in fantasy). Shame may result from the awareness of guilt but apparently is not the same thing as guilt. It’s a painful feeling about how we appear to others (and to ourselves) and doesn’t necessarily depend on our having done anything. I find this a little confusing but an example might help. In the anecdote I related in a post from my website about envy and jealousy, I once said something hurtful at a dinner party, and on some level, I intended it to be hurtful. Afterward, I felt guilty because I could see that I had hurt my friend. More painfully, I also felt ashamed that I was the sort of person who would behave that way. Guilt arose as a result of inflicting pain on somebody else; I felt shame in relation to myself.

As I said before, in everyday language people tend to use these words more or less interchangeably; as a therapist, the distinction I’m trying to clarify is important and useful. Many people crippled by shame have very little capacity to feel guilt, for example. In order to feel guilt about the harm you may have done to somebody else, you must recognize him or her as a distinct individual, to begin with. Thus a person who struggles with separation and merger issues might not feel true guilt even if he or she were to use that word to describe a feeling. Many people who display narcissistic behavior often suffer from profound feelings of shame but have little authentic concern for other people; they don’t tend to feel genuinely guilty. The lack of empathy to be found in narcissistic personality disorder makes real guilt unlikely since guilt depends upon the ability to intuit how someone else might feel.

When shame is especially pervasive (what I refer to as core or basic shame), it usually precludes feelings of genuine concern and guilt from developing; the sense of being damaged is so powerful and painful that it crowds out feeling for anyone else. In such cases, idealization often comes into play: other people are then viewed as perfect, the lucky ones who have the ideal shame-free life we crave; powerful envy may be the (unconscious) result. In those cases, we might take pleasure in hurting the person we envy rather than feeling guilty about it. I discussed this dynamic in detail in my post about why we love and hate celebrities.

In other words, core shame reflects early psychological damage that impedes growth; the capacity to feel guilt depends upon that psychological growth and could be seen as emotional progress. If the early environment is “good enough,” we develop a reliable sense of self that in turn enables us to view other people as separate and to feel concern for them. Although the experience of guilt is painful, our ability to recognize that our own actions may have hurt someone, to empathize with that person’s pain and to feel remorse for having caused it are all signs of emotional health.

Amber Reigh avatar
Amber Reigh
Hi, my name is Amber. During the day I am a data analyst for an insurance company at night I am a recreational writer. You've found my blog. How nice. I don't have a specific topic that I write about. I am not a full time foodie, adventure traveler, or fashionista, though I have been known as anyone of those at various points in my life. My writings tend to slant toward geekdom and fan culture I've enjoyed throughout the years.