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I’ve been wanting to write a blogpost about guilt and shame for some time now. As a psychologist, I’ve seen how difficult it can sometimes be to cope with these emotions, and the impact that they can have on people’s identities and sense of self-worth. I’ve also seen how tricky it can be to strike a balance between wanting to learn from our mistakes but also being compassionate with ourselves when those mistakes inevitably arise, wanting to live in line with our values but not judging ourselves excessively harshly when we fall short, and being accountable for our actions (not ‘letting ourselves off the hook too easily’) but also understanding that no one is perfect and that our isolated behaviors do not define our overall self-worth or preclude us from deserving to feel like worthwhile human beings. My hope is that this blogpost helps to promote understanding of what guilt and shame are, what their roles might be, how they may be related to mental health, and how we can address these feelings when they become excessively distressing and/or when they are no longer serving a functional role.

Definitions and roles

Guilt is a negative emotion that relates to feeling bad about a certain behavior/action (‘I did a bad thing’), whereas shame is a negative emotion that relates to feeling bad about oneself as a person overall (‘I am a bad person’) [1,2].

Although guilt is unpleasant, it may benefit our relationships in some ways [1]. For example, feeling guilty when we have done something that can harm someone else or our relationship with them can motivate us to acknowledge responsibility, and has been linked with the capacity to take another person’s perspective [1,3]. It may help us to consider how our actions affected the other person, which may in turn encourage us to take steps towards bettering the situation; depending on the situation, this could involve different approaches such as apologizing to the person we have hurt [1,4,9].  

In contrast, shame may be linked with responses that can damage our relationships [1,3]. For example, shame can stimulate feelings of resentment, and is linked with hostile responses [1,3]. Those who endure shame may also feel preoccupied with the potential for others to view them negatively [1].

For instance, in one study of university students, guilt-proneness was associated with efforts to find solutions to conflicts that addressed the concerns of both parties, whereas shame-proneness was associated with styles of coping such as being passive-aggressive or avoiding dealing with conflict directly [1].

Associations with mental health

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Both guilt and shame have been linked with mental health problems.

Indeed, in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, “excessive or inappropriate guilt” is listed as a symptom of Major Depressive Disorder [5]. A study using data from 108 studies with 22,411 participants found that shame and unreasonable guilt (guilt in which one feels an inflated sense of responsibility for events that they could not control, and more general guilt which is not specifically linked to a certain situation) were similarly linked to depressive symptoms [6].

Moreover, in a study of individuals with anxiety disorders, shame-proneness was associated with symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder, whereas guilt without shame was not associated with symptoms of anxiety disorders [7].

Coping with shame or excessive guilt

In a perfect world, someone who has done something wrong would acknowledge responsibility, feel sufficient guilt to elicit corrective actions and to experience self-growth, and subsequently let go of any remaining non-functional guilt [8]. However, sometimes this process goes too far and people may endure shame or guilt that is out of proportion to the action that they feel bad about (i.e. the guilt may be overly long-lasting or intense in light of the behavior) [8].

Here are some tools that may help to reduce excessive guilt or to minimize shame:

  • Engaging in actions to correct or repair what we have done wrong can help us reduce guilt and promote self-forgiveness [8,9].
  • Reminding ourselves that people are not defined by their actions – that is, doing something bad does not make one a bad person – can help to reduce shame [8,10].
  • It can also be helpful to consider whether the relevant emotion is currently serving a useful function. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what we think is right or wrong, what we wish we could have done differently, and what we feel we ‘deserve’, that we ignore whether the emotion that we are experiencing is serving a functional purpose. But negative emotions are meant to serve certain functions; for example, at reasonable levels, anxiety may help us prepare for a potential/future threat and guilt may help motivate us to repair the situation as described above. However, if the guilt becomes so intense that it is debilitating and makes it difficult to carry out these reparative behaviors, this may be a sign that the emotion is no longer playing a functional role and that it may be time to release the emotion or work towards reducing its intensity. 
  • In order to move towards self-forgiveness, it can be helpful to consider multiple factors including whether you may be exaggerating how much damage was actually caused by your actions, whether you may be overestimating how responsible you were for the situation, and what your mindset was at the time [11]. It can also help to develop self-compassion, perhaps by taking in some of the compassion that others have demonstrated towards you [11]. Consider whether you would judge a friend this harshly if they had done something similar; perhaps you would consider some of their other positive qualities. Perhaps you would remind them of the steps they have taken to repair their wrongdoing, that no one is perfect, and that they deserved to allow themselves some enjoyment and social support in life again. Then the challenge becomes to extend some of this logic and self-compassion to yourself.

Conclusion

Dealing with shame or excessive guilt can be very challenging, especially when one is not sure that they deserve to feel better and/or when one is also suffering from mental health problems like depression or anxiety. It can be a good idea to seek the help of a health professional who can help guide you towards the self-forgiveness and self-compassion that you deserve. 


Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

  1. Behrendt, H., & Ben-Ari, R. (2012). The positive side of negative emotion: The role of guilt and shame in coping with interpersonal conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 56, 1116-1138.
  2. Lewis, H. B. 1971. Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. New York: International Universities Press.
  3. Tangney, J. P., Wagner, P. E., Fletcher, C., & Gramzow, R. (1992). Shamed into anger? The relation of shame and self-aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 669-75.
  4. Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2000). Gilbert and Andrews take a new look at shame. PsycCRITIQUES, 45, 628-630.
  5. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
  6. Kim, S., Thibodeau, R., & Jorgensen, R. S. (2011). Shame, guilt, and depressive symptoms: A meta-analytic review. Psychological bulletin, 137, 68-96.
  7. Fergus, T. A., Valentiner, D. P., McGrath, P. B., & Jencius, S. (2010). Shame- and guilt-proneness: Relationships with anxiety disorder symptoms in a clinical sample. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 24, 811-815.
  8. Fisher, M. L., & Exline, J. J. (2010). Moving toward self‐forgiveness: Removing barriers related to shame, guilt, and regret. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 548-558.
  9. Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and Guilt. New York: Guilford Press.
  10. Braithwaite, J. (2000). Shame and criminal justice. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 7, 281–298.
  11. Clark, A. (2012). Working with guilt and shame. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 18, 137-143. 
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