Guilt vs. Shame

“Shame occurs when you haven’t been able to get away with the ‘who’ you want people to think you are.” – Carl Whitaker

We have all had moments in our lives when we are not feeling particularly proud of something that we have done.  It could be as minor as making an inappropriate joke to as major as having an extramarital affair.  The feelings that go along with these types of transgressions can be incredibly painful to bear.  It is not uncommon to feel so paralyzed by shame or guilt that you feel that it is too painful to ever face certain people again or even too painful to admit certain truths to yourself.  It is important to understand that there are very real differences between shame and guilt.

Function of Shame

All behaviors are purposeful and serve useful functions – even extremely painful feelings.  The function of shame is get us to change or hide behavior that threatens to get us kicked out of social groups or communities.  Consider the importance of shame in our early human history: if your actions were subject to extreme disapproval of the group (i.e., went against the accepted norms of the group), then being “kicked out” could very well mean that you would not survive on your own.  In this way, shame functions to encourage us to act in ways that allow us to remain in our chosen “groups” (e.g., group of friends, professional community, romantic relationship, etc.).  An example of this could be not paying child support to an estranged ex-spouse/ex-partner.  Since the community at large frowns upon this behavior, you would feel ashamed, but if you yourself do not feel that you “should” pay child support, then you would not feel guilty.  This could lead to a sense of “feeling bad that you don’t feel bad” (i.e., shame without guilt).

Function of Guilt

The function of guilt is also to get us to change our behavior or to make amends with the person/group that we have wronged.  The difference with guilt is that we feel guilty when we have taken actions that violate our own moral code(s), not the values or rules of a group.  In this way, you could take an action that may not make you feel ashamed because the group you are a part of does not disapprove of what you have done, but you could feel guilty if your action has gone against your own moral code or values.  An example of this may be trying drugs for the first time around people who regularly use drugs (i.e., they do not disapprove of your behavior).  If you feel that doing drugs goes against your own moral code, then you would feel guilty in this situation, but not ashamed.

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In a recent workshop run by Dr. Marsha Linehan on emotion regulation in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), she discussed many important ways of applying “opposite action” to regulate guilt and shame that I look forward to exploring in tomorrow’s post.

Linehan, M. (June 6-7, 2011). Updates to emotion regulation and crisis survival skills in dialectical behavior therapy. Austin, TX: Behavior Tech, LLC.

Featured image: Swallowed In The Sea by KellyB. / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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