Shame v Guilt
Guilt, on the other hand, is an experience of feeling bad for the way something happened or the thing we did, but instead of internalizing it (as we do with shame), learning something from it and moving forward in constructive ways. When we experience guilt, we can experience distress from the precipitating event, but it doesn’t impact our self-worth. We know that, regardless of our mistakes, we are still a good and worthy person. Perhaps after guilt, we ensure that we never make the same mistake again.
And we can experience guilt or shame from the exact same event.
The distinct difference between shame and guilt is the way we internalize the precipitating event. If we have the awareness to see it as a singular event, a mistake we’ve made but won’t repeat, then we are likely to internalize the event as guilt. To be clear, guilt doesn’t feel great! It’s not a pleasant experience, but it isn’t necessarily a destructive experience. On the other hand, if we feel that what has happened makes us a trash human, we’re likely to internalize it as shame.
For example, say I stand up my friend Sarah for the coffee date we set. I completely forget we were supposed to meet until her “Where you at?” text arrives. I feel badly for standing her up—wouldn’t we all? If I experience guilt about the event, I immediately apologize and set up a raincheck. (And I will probably buy her some “I’m sorry” coffee next time.)
If I experience this event through the lens of shame, then I begin beating myself up. Thinking “gosh, what a terrible friend you are. Why would anyone want to be your friend? How are you always late, why can you never remember things, you’re such an idiot.” Instead of apologizing and rescheduling, I hide. Never respond to Sarah, quit hanging out with her, maybe light my phone on fire. (A little melodramatic, but you get the point.)
See the difference?
Guilt: that thing I did was bad.
Shame: I’m bad for that thing I did.
And shame wreaks havoc on our self-worth. We begin a damaging cycle of terrible self talk, we hide, we disconnect from those we love. But we can heal this cycle and learn how to avoid shame through the shame resilience theory. Stay tuned for an in-depth dive into this 4-step theory in the next few days.
Brown, B. (2013, January.) Shame v. guilt. Brené Brown. https://brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/
Selva, J. (2020, September.) Shame Resilience Theory: How to Respond to Shame. Positive Psychology. https://positivepsychology.com/shame-resilience-theory/