Growing up, I used the words “guilt” and “shame” interchangeably. I assumed that they meant the same thing. I used both words to describe a feeling that accompanied acting in a way that was inconsistent with how I felt that I should have acted. I have since learned that those two terms, while related, represent two distinct concepts and experiences. Understanding their difference has made a world of difference in how I respond to my regular shortcomings and missteps in life.
In the book Uncovering Shame, authors Harper & Hoopes offer insight into distinguishing between guilt and shame. They wrote:
“Shame is an emotion in response to a negative evaluation of one’s self, whereas guilt is an evaluation of behavior. When people recognize that their behavior has violated some standard that has meaning to them, they feel guilty for having done it. Guilt is emotionally healthy and a necessary process of living with others.”
I’d like to break down the three sentences above and provide some additional insight.
Shame is an emotion in response to a negative evaluation of one’s self, whereas guilt is an evaluation of behavior.
This first sentence notes the key difference between shame and guilt. Allow me to elaborate on that distinction, as it is a little bit subtle. Shame is how you feel about yourself; guilt is how you feel about your behavior. To state it slightly differently: Shame is about who you are whereas guilt is about what you did. Shame says, “I feel bad because I am bad”. Guilt says, “I feel badly because of something I did (or didn’t do)”. There is an enormous difference between feeling bad and feeling badly. Feeling badly about something you do leads to a desire to change or repair the error. Feeling bad as a person leads to discouragement and justifies inaction and stuckness. Ultimately, guilt can lead to hope, whereas shame can lead to despair.
Dr. Brene Brown, a shame researcher, has studied, spoken and written extensively about shame. In her descriptions of shame, she has identified shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” She has also noted, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” This feelings of being flawed, unworthy, broken and not good enough leads to thinking that we can’t change and that we don’t deserve for things to be better.
Shame attempts to prevent healing and progress. It tries to convince people to lose hope and give up. And it invites people to hide parts of themselves and to avoid the people they care most about. Because a person in a shame state feels unworthy, they want to hide that part of themselves from others. They believe that others would also view them unworthily and reject them. They fear disconnection. And so, ironically, they disconnect. They disconnect from their potential, from people who love them, and from spiritual sources of strength. Self-imposed disconnection and abdicating agentive power is the danger of consistently evaluating one’s self rather than one’s behavior and living in a shamed state.
When people recognize that their behavior has violated some standard that has meaning to them, they feel guilty for having done it.
Everyone has standards. When I think of what the word standard means, I think of a ruler. A ruler is a reference for measurement. When objects are measured against it, the ruler provides a standardized way of identifying its length. Similarly, our actions are often measured against the moral code and standards that we have learned and assumed in our lives
Standards for behavior and morality can be learned at home, in families, in social groups, from religions, and through media. Standards tend to be based on values, and different people value different things. For this reason, certain groups may be more inclined towards guilt than others. Two individuals can even engage in the same behavior and one feel guilty and the other not. A perfectionist may feel guilty after failing at something they attempted, while another person may feel grateful that their failure taught them something new. There are some people who may feel extreme guilt for consuming certain unhealthy substances or watching movies with certain ratings, whereas others would not see anything wrong with such behaviors and thus feel no guilt because of their assumed moral code and how they were raised.
Because many people assume standards that are unnecessary or unhealthy, not all guilt is good. However, when a standard is appropriate, it can be a healthy measure that encourages morality. For example, many people value the standard: Be kind. Alignment to such standards leads to satisfaction, fulfillment, order, safety, healthy relationships and a more functional society. Deviance from such standards invites appropriate guilt which invites realigning to those standards that are helpful and productive.
Guilt is emotionally healthy and a necessary process of living with others.
I love appropriate guilt (not to be confused with excessive or inappropriate guilt, shame or other emotional counterfeits). Guilt plays an important role. I think of the role of healthy guilt as being comparable to the function of the body’s capacity to discern pain.
Consider the example of placing your hand on a hot stove. If you were to put your hand on that hot surface unknowingly, you would immediately feel pain and instinctively and immediately remove your hand from the hot surface. Pain, a protective warning system, would both signal to your brain to remove your hand from a damaging stimuli and teach you to not make that same mistake in the future. It would protect you in the moment, and provide learning that would help protect you from similar threats that could occur in the future.
Similarly, guilt can play the role of a protective warning system that guards our consciences. If we act in a way that is inconsistent with a standard that has meaning to us, then guilt reminds us of the standard and of our desires for behaviors aligned with that standard. Guilt can remind us of our goodness (assuming that our standards are healthy standards that reflect our goodness) and can also invite us to change and act in a way in which we feel more peace and satisfaction.
From a religious perspective, it can be said that guilt invites us to repent. It makes us aware of our missteps, reminds us of who we want to be, and makes us aware that change is possible through Jesus Christ.
Healthy guilt, rooted in reasonable standards, invites us to act differently in a way that leads to growth. It invites healing relationships and improving ourselves. Ultimately, true guilt, when correctly interpreted, invites us to turn to Christ and be healed through Him.