A south asian man in a black shirt stands against a gray background. He hugs himself with one arm, and with the other, covers his face.

The Difference Between Guilt and Shame

The difference between guilt and shame can be difficult to untangle, but it is this: Guilt is a very personal emotion caused by violating one’s unique moral or ethical code, while shame is a more socialised feeling, influenced by societal standards as well as our own. Let’s dig in!


Have you ever felt that heavy, sinking feeling in your chest after making a mistake or behaving in a way that doesn’t align with your values? But have you also experienced moments when you felt like you were inherently flawed, unworthy, and just wished to disappear from sight?


These two sensations are the building blocks of guilt and shame respectively, two powerful but often misunderstood feelings. Understanding the difference between guilt and shame is essential for not only improving emotional well-being but also for cultivating self-awareness, resilience, and personal growth.


What is guilt?


Guilt is an emotion that is typically associated with specific actions or behaviours. It arises when we recognise that we have done something that violates our own moral or ethical standards. Guilt is often described as a nagging feeling of responsibility for a particular event or situation. It is, in essence, a moral compass that helps us distinguish right from wrong.


Examples of situations related to guilt


  • Cheating on a test: If you’ve ever cheated on an exam, you may feel guilty about it afterwards. The guilt stems from knowing that you have violated academic integrity and your own ethical standards.
  • Lying to a loved one: When we lie to someone we care about, it can lead to intense feelings of guilt. The realization that you’ve betrayed their trust can be emotionally taxing.
  • Breaking a promise: Failing to keep a promise can generate guilt. You feel responsible for letting someone down by not following through on your commitment.

What is shame?


Shame is a more complex response influenced more by societal norms. Unlike guilt, which is connected more to personal standards, shame is a pervasive feeling of worthlessness for not measuring up to societal standards. It’s a deeply ingrained belief that you, as a person, are inherently flawed, bad, or unworthy. Shame can be described as a negative judgement of your entire self.


Examples of experiences related to shame


  • Public accidents: If a person vomits or loses control of their bowels in a public space, shame is a likely emotion, because most societies look down on public loss of control and consider excretions of waste a private act.
  • Body image issues: Many people experience shame related to their physical appearance, often feeling inadequate or unattractive irrespective of their actual physical attributes when they compare themselves to societal beauty standards.
  • Past trauma: Survivors of trauma, such as abuse or assault, can grapple with profound shame. Due to societal biases, they may feel as though they were somehow responsible for the events that transpired and are bad or weak for ‘letting’ them happen.
  • Stigma and prejudice: Discrimination or prejudice based on race, ethnicity, sexuality, or other factors – often entrenched within a society – can lead to feelings of shame and make people question their self-worth.

When chronic guilt and shame combine


Guilt and shame can coexist, creating a distressing and self-reinforcing cycle. Chronic guilt may intensify feelings of shame, as ongoing remorse for specific actions can contribute to a deeper belief in one’s inherent unworthiness.


Conversely, a foundation of shame can lead to an excessive sense of guilt, even for minor transgressions, as individuals with low self-worth are more likely to interpret their actions as morally wrong.


The difference between guilt and shame


Understanding the fundamental difference between guilt and shame is the first step in effectively managing these complex emotions.


Guilt is prompted by violating one’s personal code of conduct, while shame is rooted more in societal standards. 


Guilt is also more likely to be tied to specific events. For example, if you’ve cheated on a test, your guilt is directly associated with the cheating incident. If you’ve told a ‘white lie’ to make someone feel better, you will likely feel less guilty than you would after cheating on an exam.


In contrast, shame is not confined to individual values, morals, or ethics; rather, it’s the result of those, plus societal judgement. Shame can be the result of specific events, or it can be a more general ingrained belief of inherent flaws, bad-ness, or unworthiness as a person. For instance, someone who has body image issues is likely to feel shame about their appearance –  a constant, underlying sense of unworthiness that isn’t linked to any single event.


How guilt and shame are similar


Guilt and shame are closely related. It is possible and even common to experience both at the same time. For instance, if you hurt a friend, you might feel both guilt, for being responsible and violating your own standards for friendship, and shame, because you violated societal consensus around how friends should be treated.


Also, guilt and shame are frequently accompanied by negative self-talk and an inner critic that constantly berates us for our perceived shortcomings. This internal dialogue further entrenches these emotions, making it even more challenging to break free from their grip.


How guilt and shame become chronic


Guilt and shame can become chronic if left unaddressed and unresolved, and when they do, they carry profound consequences for mental and emotional well-being.


How chronic guilt and shame affect mental health


When guilt persists without resolution, it can lead to chronic emotional distress. People living with ongoing guilt may find themselves plagued by anxiety and depression. The remorse felt alongside guilt can kick off a never-ending cycle: A person berates themselves for their guilty act, which in turn worsens their feelings of inadequacy and regret – prompting them to criticise themselves some more, etc.


Consider a scenario where someone has wronged a close friend but has not taken responsibility or sought forgiveness. Over time, the guilt may intensify, leading to increased anxiety as they grapple with the consequences of their actions. The longer they delay addressing the guilt, the more profound the impact on their mental health. Guilt may be expressed in the form of anger toward their friend, anxiety over the relationship, or depression.


Unaddressed shame can also have lasting repercussions. A prolonged sense of unworthiness can erode self-esteem and self-worth, making individuals vulnerable to various mental health issues. Those who suffer from chronic shame may struggle with forming healthy relationships and maintaining a stable self-concept.


Both guilt and shame can take a significant toll on our mental and emotional well-being. Guilt is often linked to anxiety, depression, and self-punishment. It can lead to a persistent inner critic, with thoughts of self-condemnation that contribute to a negative self-image.


Shame, on the other hand, can have a profound emotional impact on self-esteem and self-worth. It often results in a tendency to withdraw from social interactions and isolate oneself, perpetuating the belief that one is unworthy of connection and support. Over time, this can also lead to depression.


Dealing with guilt and shame requires a combination of self-awareness and proactive steps to manage these emotions effectively. Here are some strategies for addressing both.


How to deal with guilt


The following steps can make guilt easier to bear, or sometimes relieve it completely.


  • Acknowledge and accept responsibility: Recognise the specific actions that led to your guilt. Taking responsibility is the first step toward making amends.
  • Make amends: If appropriate, make efforts to rectify the situation by apologising, or offering restitution to those affected by your actions.
  • Understand the source of guilt: Reflect on why you feel guilty. Is it because you violated your own moral or ethical standards, or is it due to societal expectations? Understanding the source of your guilt can provide insight into your values and beliefs.
  • Seek forgiveness: Whether from others or yourself, forgiveness can be a powerful way to alleviate guilt and move forward.
  • Forgive yourself: One of the most important steps in dealing with guilt is forgiving yourself. Understand that everyone makes mistakes, and guilt is a natural part of being human. Self-forgiveness is essential for moving forward.

How to manage shame


The steps below can help ease shame and challenge the thought patterns that contribute to the emotion.


  • Recognise and accept shame: The first step in managing shame is to acknowledge its presence. Understand that shame is a normal, if uncomfortable, human emotion, and it’s okay to feel it at times. Accepting your shame is essential to begin the process of healing.
  • Challenge negative beliefs: Challenge and reframe negative thoughts to create a more realistic and compassionate self-assessment. How might shame be leading you to make negative assumptions about yourself, others, or the world?
  • Practice self-compassion: Treat yourself with the same kindness and empathy that you would offer to a close friend who feels ashamed. Self-compassion involves acknowledging your imperfections and forgiving yourself for your mistakes. Remember that you are not defined by your flaws.
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation: Mindfulness and meditation techniques can help you stay non-judgmental and rooted in the present. These practices can assist in managing and reducing feelings of shame by promoting self-awareness and emotional regulation.
  • Set boundaries: Establish healthy boundaries to protect yourself from situations or people that trigger shame. Learning to say “no” and prioritise your well-being is an essential aspect of managing shame.

How therapy can help ease chronic guilt and shame


In some cases, guilt and shame can become deeply ingrained, and self-help strategies may not be sufficient. If you find that these emotions are significantly impacting your life or peace of mind, seeking therapy, whether in person with a therapist or through a guided self-therapy program, can be invaluable. Professional help can provide a safe and supportive environment to explore the roots of these feelings and develop effective coping strategies.





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Vidula V Sawant (M.A., M.Phil., CRR No. A80980) is a clinical psychologist with 4+ years of experience and a passion for understanding the complexities of our minds and behaviours.

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