NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Understanding the Difference Between Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are two emotions that are often confused, but there are basic differences between them. In earlier articles about shame, including Overcoming Shame, I discussed shame, what it is, what causes shame, and what can be done to overcome shame.  In this article, I will describe the differences between guilt and shame and give examples to clarify those differences.

Shame vs Guilt

Let's take a look at the differences between guilt and shame:

Differences Between Guilt and Shame:
  • Shame is a Pervasive Feeling About Oneself vs Guilt Which is Usually About Behavior: Whereas shame is often a pervasive, negative feeling that people have about themselves that can be emotionally crippling in severe cases ("I'm a bad person"), guilt isn't a feeling about oneself--it's a feeling about a particular behavior ("I did something bad").
  • Shame Has No Redeeming Qualities Whereas Guilt Can Lead to Taking Responsibility and to Change: There are no redeeming qualities to being ashamed of oneself.  When people feel ashamed, they feel badly about themselves and it often makes them want to isolate or avoid whatever makes them feel ashamed.   Shame about oneself can actually cause someone to avoid looking at whatever s/he feels ashamed about.  But feeling guilty can force someone to look at himself or herself and take responsibility for negative behavior.  Feeling guilty can have redeeming aspects to it if it leads to people making amends for things they feel badly about doing.  Feeling guilty can lead to making an effort to reconcile with others and to making other changes.  Guilt can help people to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
  • Shame Can Be Longstanding Whereas Guilt is Often Transitory: Whereas feeling guilty about a particular behavior is often temporary, feeling ashamed often goes to the core of how a person feels about him or herself.
  • Shame Can Contribute to Depression and Anxiety:  Feeling ashamed can contribute to mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, because it's an overall pervasive feeling about oneself.  It usually goes to the core of how people feel about themselves, whereas guilt usually does not affect people in this way.

Examples of the Difference Between Shame and Guilt

Joe felt ashamed because he felt so socially inept that he avoided attending gatherings, including the funeral service for his friend's mother.

Feeling Ashamed and Avoiding People and Situations

His shame had a snowballing effect because not only did he avoid the funeral, but he felt so ashamed of himself that he avoided calling his friend or going to places where he knew his friend would be.  After a while, Joe and his friend became estranged, which made Joe feel even more ashamed.

Sharon felt guilty that she didn't go to her friend's mother's funeral service because the timing was too close to her own mother's death and it was too hard for her.

Feeling Guilty and Apologizing

But she called her friend in advance to express her condolences and offered to see her one-on-one when she knew her friend would be alone and feeling lonely after everyone else had gone.  Her friend accepted her apology and they remained close friends.

Betty suffered with a lot of shame because she gained 20 lbs over the last year due to overeating.  Her doctor recommended that Betty see a nutritionist to change her eating habits, seek help in therapy to overcome the underlying issues to her overeating, and go to the gym to exercise.  But Betty felt that her weight gain made her "ugly."

Feeling Ashamed, Isolated and Immobilized

Instead of taking steps to lose weight, she isolated herself at home and continued to berate herself for gaining the weight.   This, in turn, made her feel more ashamed and she continued to overeat to deal with her pervasive feelings of shame.  It became a vicious cycle.

Cindy felt guilty about overeating for the last year and gaining 20 lbs.  Her doctor advised her that Cindy needed to take steps to lose the weight for health reasons.  Cindy knew that she was successful at losing weight in the past and that she could do it again.

Feeling Guilty But Taking Steps to Get Healthy

Rather than dwelling on the fact that she had been overeating, she made a commitment to her doctor and to herself to make important lifestyle changes to get healthy.  Then, she made an appointment with a nutritionist to develop better eating habits.  She contacted a therapist to deal with the underlying issues involved with her overeating.  She also began going to the gym three times a week.  Whenever she was tempted to overeat, she remembered how guilty she felt in the past, and she used that feeling to motivate herself to change.  As she lost weight and got healthier, she felt more motivated to continue getting healthier.

Shame and Guilt Can Be Difficult to Handle on Your Own
While it might be easier to overcome feelings of guilt, as compared to feelings of shame, they can both be difficult to overcome on your own.

Getting Help in Therapy
People who tend to suffer with shame often have a hard time asking for help because they feel they don't deserve it (see my article:  Overcoming the Shame that Keeps You From Going to Therapy).

Getting Help in Therapy

But everybody needs help at some point, especially when it comes to overcoming guilt or shame.

When you work with a licensed psychotherapist who has experience helping clients to overcome guilt or shame, you're usually able to work out these feelings in a way you can't on your own.

Letting go of difficult feelings that are holding you back in your life can free you to lead a happier and more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome feelings of guilt and shame.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.