July 7, 2016
By Simcha Samuel, PhD, Psychologist
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.
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 . 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 .
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 .
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 . 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 .
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 .
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 . 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) .
Here are some tools that may help to reduce excessive guilt or to minimize shame:
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.