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The Difference Between Shame and Guilt and Why it Matters

Shame and guilt are often used interchangeably; we’re guilty and so we feel ashamed. But, they’re different.

The main difference lies in their power. Guilt, for its part, is about something you’ve done; you’ve lied to your spouse, you’ve cheated a friend, you’ve eaten the entire cake in one sitting. There are varying degrees of this: we can feel guilty for something minor we did or we can feel guilty for something that really impacted our relationship with others. We can also feel guilty for something that’s wrong because it’s illegal or guilty for something that’s wrong because it’s immoral (or both).

Shame, on the other hand, has more to do with who you are. For instance, you may be ashamed of not being as smart or successful as your sibling or ashamed of things that have happened in your past. Shame can coincide with guilt, as mentioned above; if you lose your job for yelling at your boss, you’ll likely feel guilt for the outburst. And then shame will follow: you’ll feel ashamed of having a temper or of being unemployed.

Shame is the more powerful of the emotions; because it attacks who we are, it packs a more powerful punch. In her powerful TED talk the Shame Researcher Brene Brown identifies that “shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide and eating disorders”.

Guilt, on the other hand, is fleeting; yes, you made a mistake, but so does everyone. This just in: you’re human. Guilt also helps us to change, so we don’t make the same mistake again. So although guilt is uncomfortable it helps us adapt.

There are no ways to avoid shame and guilt entirely (at least short of becoming a psychopath). Remember that everyone feels these emotions (again, short of psychopaths). They come with the job of being a person. But there are things you can do to assuage their potency.

If you feel guilty for something you have done, apologise. Even if the person you’ve hurt won’t accept it, say you’re sorry anyway. Apologise for you, not for them and strive to do better next time. Really, that’s all any of us can do. Tomorrow, strive to do better than today, but recognise that you will continue to make mistakes and continue to have flaws. There are nearly eight billion people on the planet and none of them are perfect.

When you feel ashamed; name your shame. Saying something aloud makes it less acute. So does sharing it with others. When you share your shame you take away its power, which is exactly what we want to do. It returns our power to us and allows us to heal.


Hiya, I’m Karen, energy therapist and mind body expert for dynamic and ambitious women who are struggling with anxiety. I help them to get to the root cause of their anxiety so they can take back control other thoughts and be the calm and confident woman they want to be.
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