Guilt and Shame

Real vs Ideal Self

Guilt and shame are two distinct self-conscious emotions that are deeply rooted in self-reflection and self-evaluation. They lead us to think about our actions as they relate to our values and beliefs, and cause us to compare our actual everyday self against our ideal version of ourself (Miceli, 2018).

These emotions serve to impact our perception of responsibility, influence our self-esteem, and elicit feelings of distress over the transgressions we make. Guilt and shame have been shown to cause one another, and often occur at the same time (Miceli, 2018).

Guilt and shame both involve comparing ourselves to others and cause apprehension about our social standing and relationships with those around us. They create negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves when a social, cultural or self-imposed moral, rule or standard is broken. If we take actions that make us feel guilty, we begin to feel shameful. If we hold onto shame internally, we are more likely to respond to social situations with feelings of guilt (Weiner, 2010).

Both these emotions are defined by the type of self-evaluation they create. They may generate feelings of inadequacy that manifest as ideas about being unattractive, having low intelligence, having low moral standards or having physical limitations that define us. We may also imagine ourselves as intentionally harmful. As sinful, unfair, unjust, and both capable and willing to violate social norms and prevent the success of others (Miceli, 2018).

When feeling guilty, we focus our attention on a transgression we’ve made that is external, specific and time limited. We become aware that others have been hurt, and form a sense of empathy for them. Remorse motivates us to admit that we did something bad, apologize, and engage in actions that repair our relationships and sense of self (Weiner, 2010). 

When feeling shame, we focus on events and transgressions that we deem as reflective of our character and who we are as a person. We imagine others have feelings of contempt and disgust toward us and we develop feelings of worthlessness. We become so overwhelmed by these feelings that we don’t take the time to develop empathy for ourselves or for others. We feel as though we are bad, and are motivated to withdraw and hide from those who judge us. We may even feel compelled to counterattack those we perceive as causing our feelings of shame (Weiner, 2010). 

Guilt Defined

Both an emotion and a physical condition, guilt is experienced by almost everyone. It arises when we have thoughts or take actions that violate our own morality or that of the group we desire to be a part of (Weiner, 2010). 

Guilt is only possible if we have the ability to feel sympathy and empathy, and are able to identify when others are in distress. This ability is associated with a brain function carried out by mirror neurons, which cause our brains to imagine we are carrying out an action when we see another person carry out that action. Therefore, if we see someone suffering, we are then moved to end that suffering as if it were happening to us. If we fail to end that suffering, the outcome is guilt (Weiner, 2010). 

Guilt can be objective, meaning we took an action that broke a law or rule enforced by our religion, state or community and are therefore ‘guilty’. In this state it is common to feel the internal discomfort that comes from doing something wrong and experience a fear of consequences. Subjective guilt arises when we violate our internal standards and feel our actions reflect negatively on us in relation to others. We may also feel subjectively guilty if we are falsely accused of a rule violation (Weiner, 2010). 

In both objective and subjective guilt, we may feel regret and a desire to repent and seek forgiveness. We may attempt to engage in altruistic behavior, pursue conflict resolution or we may offer restitution to those we harmed. Guilt motivates us to relieve our unpleasant emotions through actions designed to repair and maintain social connections. This is an evolutionary adaptation to living in groups (Weiner, 2010).

When we are functioning within large, healthy groups with stability and clear social organization, guilt acts to mitigate in-group competition and conflict. When mutual benefit is present, we may regret breaking a rule and learn not to break it again through behavioral changes. This adaptive form of guilt allows us a way to make mistakes without losing our place in the group entirely (Weiner, 2010). 

While the social benefit of guilt is clear, those who feel excessive empathy-based guilt are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Maladaptive forms of guilt can occur when we imagine transgressions that have not occurred and then react to them, or we exaggerate the intent or impact of transgressions that did occur. Some of us fixate on our guilt through rumination, and some may engage in acts of self-punishment to relieve our difficult feelings. These behaviors hinder mutually beneficial social interaction, and cause us to suffer as if we committed actual crimes. Over time, they can cause us to incorporate guilt into our personal identity (Weiner, 2010).

Another identity-linked form of guilt is known as survivor’s guilt. Motivated by a basic human preference developed in infancy, that of fairness, this form of guilt encompasses the idea that our own success and contentment leads others to suffer by comparison. Those with survivor's guilt may engage in self-sabotage as well as suffer from anxiety and depression (Weiner, 2010).

Shame Defined

Shame is a negative self-evaluation that we think of as coming from others but that originates within. It is defined by a discrepancy between our real self and our ideal self, where our real self is perceived as wholly inadequate. When shamed, we develop thoughts of personal condemnation, devaluation, reproach and accusation. We experience a sense of intense exposure, where our flaws are immediately visible to those around us. We perceive that what has been revealed about us is reprehensible, unforgivable and is an accurate, complete reflection of who we are as people. We feel small, deficient, disgusting, disgraced, unacceptable, unlovable and an unbearable sense of isolation (Weiner, 2010). 

Through the lens of these intense emotions, we imagine ourselves not only as ‘bad’, but as entirely bad, forever. This compels us to hide away and withdraw from those close to us as well as our community as a whole. Our ability to evaluate our situation critically or engage in accurate self-reflection diminishes almost to non-existence (Weiner, 2010). 

Shame is thought to develop in our formative years as a result of caregiver behaviors. Specifically, how our caregivers respond to the enthusiasm and pride we take in our developing motor skills and autonomy. If our caregivers are insensitive when we share our age-appropriate developmental milestones with them, it leads us to doubt ourselves and feel inadequate. If we are actively shamed for these positive emotions, we lose the desire to engage in our new skills entirely (Weiner, 2010). 

Alternatively, if our caregivers are in tune with our enthusiasm and pride, we can use that feedback to better organize our internal experiences in a way that facilitates bonding and a sense of belonging. In this state, we are at our optimal alertness for learning and engaging the world around us. As adults, we experience shame through more matured cognitive functions. Shame then results from life events where we perceive ourselves as abused, rejected, neglected or at risk of social isolation (Weiner, 2010).

Our body language reflects shame through blushing, a lowering of the gaze and head, minimized eye contact and slumped shoulders. This serves to reduce the space we take up in order to demonstrate submission and appeasement. Such an act offers deference of rank to those we have offended, which reduces the likelihood others will act aggressively or engage in social exclusion (Weiner, 2010). 

Many groups and cultures engage in social exclusion in an effort to induce shame. Through ostracism, social conformity to group standards can be most easily enforced. This is due to the fact that the most psychologically damaging punishment is social isolation (Weiner, 2010). So much so that our brains perceive the pain of being pushed out of a group the same as a needle prick (Biro, 2010). The tool of social exclusion works even with group standards that are not noble or violate personal morality, as may occur in a gang or cult (Weiner, 2010).

The feeling of shame is intense and chaotic, yet it is not harmful in and of itself. It can serve the purpose of social cohesion and can inspire us to become a better version of ourselves. Yet, when we make great efforts to avoid shame and the feelings related to shame, we create consequences for ourselves that are difficult to manage. Four maladaptive responses to shame are detailed as follows (Weiner, 2010):

  • Withdrawal - When we attempt to hide our feelings of inadequacy by disengaging passively through behaviors like reduced eye-contact and self-isolation.
    • This strategy is known to lead to depression in some cases.
  • Avoidance - This occurs when we make active efforts to ignore feelings of shame. It takes one of two forms.
  • Diversion - Where we engage in behaviors that draw the attention of others away from our feelings of shame.
    • Can manifest as excessive gambling, indiscriminate and compulsive sexual habits and drug use.
  • Narcissistic Defense of Grandiosity - Where we defend our psyche against a sense of inadequacy by exaggerating and hyper-inflating our self-esteem.
    • This can lead to a lack of self awareness and a rejection of interpersonal connections.
  • Attacking of the Self - In this state we are acutely aware of the ongoing potential for social rejection, and sacrifice our spontaneity, creativity and personal needs in order to ensure that we maintain our social connections.
    • Often involves engaging in self-criticism to reduce the impact of criticism from others. 
    • Can lead to self injury and suicide.
  • Attacking Others - This perspective causes us to see others as shamed, and we perceive all those outside the self to be flawed or otherwise defective. In this state, we do not feel our own shame or inadequacy. Instead, we feel righteous indignation, anger and aggression. 
    • Can involve behaviors like gossiping, prejudice and physical violence. 
The maladaptive reactions to shame listed above are associated with the development of psychological conditions including anxiety, depression, narcissism and obsessive compulsive behaviors (Weiner, 2010).

Overcoming Guilt

When we feel guilt over what we’ve done that harmed someone we value our relationship with, seeking forgiveness can alleviate our burden (Weiner, 2010) and their burden. A proactive effort we can make is to apologize authentically, without reservation and with the intention to recover what was lost (Chapman, 2008). 

Apologies can take many forms, but research suggests that a meaningful apology contains specific communication strategies designed to show our intention for reconciliation with the needs of the person we harmed in mind. This can be broken down into five approaches, outlined below (Chapman, 2008):

  • Express Regret - This action requires that we verbally acknowledge that we caused someone pain, betrayed their trust, inconvenienced them or disappointed them. We use this time to communicate through our actions, words and body language that we feel guilt, shame and pain for having caused hurt.
    • Use the words ‘I apologize for’ and be specific about what we're sorry about.
    • Show deference in our body language, be sure our facial expression and posture is aligned with the words we’re saying.
  • Accept Responsibility - Here we accept that we are flawed individuals capable of making mistakes. We own up to what we did, and put it into words to ensure everyone involved knows that the truth of the event is understood. 
    • Share our understanding of why the other person was hurt. 
    • Use the words ‘I was wrong’.
    • Take full responsibility without justifying our actions or saying ‘if’ or ‘but’. 
    • Do not blame shift or bring in hurt from past events. Stay focused on what exactly we are apologizing for.
  • Make Restitution - Think about how to make things equal, fair or better. Think about an act of service that can help prove our commitment to reconciliation.
    • Ask the other person ‘How can I make it right?’ or ‘How can I show you that you are valued and loved?’
    • We must listen to the answer and take that action without complaint or desire for action from the other. Words without follow through is simply more harm done.
  • Genuine Repentance - Here we express what actions we will take to learn from our error and stop it from occurring again. 
    • Take full responsibility for what was done
    • Make a plan to change
    • Follow through on that plan
  • Request Forgiveness - This is where we use the words ‘Can you forgive me?’ This gives the person we harmed power over us to say no and to take what action they need to in order to protect themselves from more harm. It is a show of deference to restore the power imbalance. 

Those we’ve hurt may not want to engage us, and attempts to reconcile may do more harm than good. In this case, it is considered acceptable to ask once for an opportunity to make amends. If the response is not affirmative consent from the other party (explicitly - yes, I would like to make amends), it is imperative that we respect the other person by honoring their wishes. We must live with the consequences of our actions without forcing someone else to work against their own needs on our behalf (AAWS, 2001). 

Overcoming Shame

Overcoming shame requires us to unlearn habitual patterns of thinking that developed in our formative years. This can be accomplished through a tool called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT asks us to use our matured perspective to reassess the events of the past and objectively evaluate the origin story of the negative, harsh, and often unrealistic thoughts we developed about ourselves at a young age. This approach allows us to break apart such thoughts, and test their components against reality, leading to what is known as cognitive restructuring (Torres, 2021). For CBT strategies that may help with feelings of shame, click here.

Forgiveness of self and others allows us to move past social transgressions in a prosocial manner. It enhances our motivation to cooperate with others on accepting a mutual reality and making agreeable changes to meet the needs of each party involved (McCollough, 2001). Forgiveness allows us to release our negative feelings about an event by creating our own form of closure. It puts an end date on the event, allowing us to begin to create distance with time (Enright, 1998). Additional information on ways we can forgive ourselves and others is available by clicking here.

Another strategy to overcoming shame is to seek out acceptance from others (Weiner, 2010). When we desire to build the areas of our lives for ourselves and others, we use adaptive thoughts, coping and behavior to influence those around us and our environment in a positive way. This facilitates a mutually beneficial connection with those we interact with on a daily basis. Stronger social connection with our community helps us become more resilient to outside influences (Wheeler, 2022). Click here for more information on how adaptives can help overcome guilt and shame.

We can diminish feelings of shame through the development of stress tolerance skills. One way to improve our ability to tolerate the intense feelings that come from shame involves exposure and response prevention techniques (Aslanian, 2021). For more information on exposure and response prevention, click here.

Finally, consider using humor to manage feelings of shame or embarrassment (Dowling, 2002). For more information on humor, click here.

Helping Someone Cope with Guilt and Shame

If someone feels guilty and we want to make amends with them, the apology strategies listed above can help us work together to seek out and solidify an aggreeable resolution. If we are not ready to make amends just yet, but think we will be one day, it can help to communicate that to the one who wronged us. This prevents feelings of finality from developing and creates space for future emotional repair.

If someone we care about is struggling with feelings of shame, we can help relieve that suffering by offering them a chance to tell us why they feel that way. This starts by offering ourselves as a safe person to have the conversation with (Aslanian, 2021). This asks us to withhold all judgment and take on the perspective of unconditional positive regard. For insight into unconditional positive regard as a resource, click here. For information on how to communicate therapeutically, click here.

With a safe perspective, and within a healing environment, we can encourage the person struggling with shame to tell us their story. Through the use of story-telling we can help them bring their shameful feelings out of the darkness and into the light. Once in the light, we can share our empathy and compassion, and encourage them to see themselves compassionately as well. This externalization of shame transforms it into something seen and understood, which diminishes its power over time (Aslanian, 2021).