Guilt and Shame 101
Imagine being in a dark room - enclosed and imprisoned. You can’t see. You can’t escape. The shackles around your legs and arms are the things you feel guilty about and the shame you feel.
Many of us can relate to the feeling of being confined by guilt and shame. The famous Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his book Crime and Punishment, explains his main character’s battle with guilt after a bad deed, “He was so immersed in himself and had isolated himself so much from everyone that he was afraid not only of meeting his landlady but of meeting anyone at all. He was crushed by poverty; but even his strained circumstances had lately ceased to burden him.”
Guilt and shame are uncomfortable feelings that make us nauseated, flush in the face, and kick in our fight-or-flight response. Yet, despite the discomfort they can induce, they have their positives just like the other emotions. Evolutionarily speaking, guilt and shame developed as we became more socially dependent and connected. In fact, studies of primates show that they too show guilt in social hierarchical settings - it’s the precursor to reconciliation.
In our emotion wheel, guilt and shame are listed under sadness, but they have elements in common with of disgust and fear/anxiety, and as such can be complicated. Guilt and shame can be anxiety-inducing. Remember from Disgust 101 that it informs our morality. In the same way, guilt and shame signal when a social more has been violated. In fact, the term “moral injury” was derived by researchers studying Veteran service members’ battles with guilt and shame after returning from war.
We often talk about guilt and shame together, but they are actually different. Guilt is focused toward our actions, whereas shame is about how we see ourselves. Whenever you feel guilt (I did something wrong), you also feel shame (I’m not a good person because I did something wrong), but you can feel shame without feeling guilt.
We feel guilt when we do something out of line with our values or that we regret. Guilt’s purpose is to get us to reconcile and ask for forgiveness so that we can be accepted back into our social group. It can help us repair our relationships, make amends, and learn from our mistakes. Even the anticipation of guilt can prevent us from making mistakes and damaging relationships. For example, I lie to my significant other when they ask me where I was this evening, and I then feel guilty because the relationship is meaningful to me. Or I decide not to lie when they ask because thinking about it made me feel guilty.
We feel shame when we think we are not worthy as a person, that we are not worthy of acceptance, or that we don’t belong. For example, if I feel shame about who I am and what I deserve (i.e. “I don’t deserve[love, friendship, etc.]”), then I will not want to be around other because I think I don’t belong or they won’t accept me. Shame’s purpose is to prompt us to approach, to show up, be vulnerable, and gain acceptance. When informing in a healthy way, shame can also drive and motivate us to self-improve.
Guilt and shame are problematic when they are excessive, in unwarranted situations, or lead us to self-defensive behaviors. Both can lead us to withdrawing, isolating, and being overly critical of ourselves. Guilt and shame can convince us that we will never be forgiven or accepted. Guilt and shame can drive us to be defensive and hostile, the function of which is to protect our ego. Or they can drive us to be overwhelmingly self-critical and self-sabotaging.
Fortunately, we have some skills that can help to manage excessive guilt and shame. One of the key skills is to have self-compassion and empathy with yourself - it’s acting opposite of the urge to be self-critical and self-sabotaging. Another tool is to identify whether your guilt or shame is shaded by cognitive distortions and use the ABCDE skill or 5-Column Thought Record to try to change your thoughts. Journaling has a lot of evidence of being effective against guilt and shame. Journaling allows you to sort through the difficult thoughts that guilt and shame can induce. Try out some of the journaling prompts and begin to use guilt and shame to guide rather than imprison.
References / Learn More:
Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2018). Reconsidering the Differences Between Shame and Guilt. Europe's journal of psychology, 14(3), 710–733. doi:10.5964/ejop.v14i3.1564
Shen L (2018) The evolution of shame and guilt. PLoS ONE 13(7): e0199448. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0199448