Guilt v Shame: What's the Difference?
Shame, guilt, and regret are emotional siblings that help point out where we’re going wrong. They have the potential to make your life better and better. They also have the potential of weighing you down.
Part of being human is making mistakes. The question isn’t whether you’ll make mistakes. The question is: what will you do with your mistakes?
This post will help you put your mistakes into perspective and turn associated guilt or regret into tools for upleveling your life. It will also help you let go of shame that binds you.
What's in This Post
|Shame v Guilt v Regret
|Shame and Guilt Brené Brown
|Shame Brené Brown: Short Quotes
|Guilt and Regret
|4 Steps for Managing Guilt and Regret
|Managing Guilt Worksheets and More
Shame v Guilt v Regret
Emotions are information. They are trying to tell you something about what is going on for you and the world around you.
The information shame, guilt, and regret offer:
Regret: I wish I hadn’t done something because there was a negative consequence or result.
Guilt: I did something that was harmful to myself, someone, or something. I have done something bad.
Shame: I am bad.
Shame is a global feeling of I am all bad. Shame will take you down. It isn't productive. It can undermine your self-esteem, leaving you feeling fatally flawed and unworthy. It can get in the way of you being OK with making a mistake and learning from that mistake.
Shame can be other-imposed: someone(s) shame you. Other-imposed shame typically has much more to do with their shortcomings than anything you have done or are.
Shame can be self-imposed if you tend to make sweeping negative assessments of yourself.
When you feel self-imposed shame, you would do well to try to move it over to guilt or regret. Focus on the thing you did that was bad rather than the feeling that you are all bad. (More on how to do that in a minute.)
One source of self-imposed shame is perfectionism.
Learn more about overcoming toxic perfectionism in this post:
Shame and Guilt Brené Brown
Brené Brown, Ph.D. is a social work professor and author famous for her talks and books on shame, vulnerability, and courage.
Brené Brown defines shame as the intense pain of feeling fundamentally flawed and unworthy of love. It can be triggered by something you have done or failed to do.
On the other hand, guilt is an adaptive emotion which helps you hold your actions up against your values. It encourages you to make better decisions in the future.
Guilt can be a useful tool for self-reflection and growth, whereas shame is more likely to lead to destructive behavior.
Shame-driven destruction can be directed toward yourself, others, and/or your relationships. Fear of disconnection due to shame can lead people to act out in harmful ways in order to avoid being rejected by others.
“Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.” –Brené Brown
It’s important for individuals to recognize the difference between shame and guilt so they can address their feelings in a healthy way. By understanding how these two emotions differ, we can learn how to use them productively rather than letting them control our lives.
Book about shame by Brené Brown: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
Shame Brené Brown: Short Quotes
“Shame is. . . fear that we’re not good enough.” –Brené Brown
“Shame works like the zoom lens on a camera. When we are feeling shame, the camera is zoomed in tight and all we see is our flawed selves, alone and struggling.” –Brené Brown
“Shame: It's that gremlin that says 'I'm not enough.' Or, if you're feeling pretty confident,...'ooh, who do you think you are?'” –Brené Brown
“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” –Brené Brown
"What we don't need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human." –Brené Brown
“Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.” –Brené Brown
For more on Brené Brown, check out this post: Brené Brown Vulnerability Definition and Quotes with Images
Guilt and Regret
While shame is a more negative global assessment of oneself, guilt and regret help us notice when we have been off course and self-correct.
When guilt and regret are used in a healthy way, they help keep us on track with our values. They make us stop and examine what we are doing and make adjustments if appropriate. They help stimulate personal reassessment, apologies, change, and making amends. But overreaction to these emotions can get in the way of this potential for growth.
There are a couple of typical overreaction patterns to these emotions:
- If we can’t stand to make mistakes, we’ll push back on any hint of these emotions within ourselves. That can make us defensive and/or go numb so we don’t feel the feelings.
- If we have a tendency to invite these emotions as familiar friends because we see ourselves as inadequate or fatally flawed, we can overreact to what should be a relatively small dose of guilt or regret. That overreaction can stop you from doing something you really should do (i.e., tactfully express your concerns when someone makes an unreasonable request). It could also push you to do something you shouldn’t (i.e., giving in to an unreasonable request).
Routine guilt and regret overreactions get in the way of embracing and learning from mistakes.
4 Steps for Managing Guilt and Regret
Guilt can not only be managed--it can be turned into a useful tool to make your life better.
When you feel guilt or regret, take yourself through these steps:
1. Own it.
- Acknowledge to yourself that you have guilt or regret about something. Making an “I” message about the situation may be helpful.
- Check in about any overreaction. Ask yourself, “How much of this emotion is warranted by the situation, and how much is an overreaction?” Set aside the overreaction part to process separately. (There may be anything from lots or a little left after you set aside the overreaction.)
2. Learn from it.
- For that part warranted by the situation, ask yourself, “Should I be making amends?” and “What is my learning?”
3. Use it.
- Make a plan for making amends, if appropriate, and putting the learning into action.
- Then, work your plan so that you make desired changes.
4. Let it go.
Remind yourself that you are working on using what you learned.
- Check how your plan is going. Reflect on whether you want to adjust your goals as a result of additional learning from putting your plan into action.
If you need assistance letting the pain go, the releasing techniques in my book Building Skills to Uplevel Life: Silver Lining Emotional Intelligence Workbook can help.
Managing Guilt Worksheets and More
My emotional intelligence workbook, Building Skills to Uplevel Life, is chock full of helpful info, tips, techniques, and worksheets to take your life to the next level.
- Ann Silvers