The emotions of guilt and shame are often used interchangeable, however, these emotions are distinct. According to Psychology Today, guilt is “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined”. Shame is “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another”. Here is a helpful infographic that explains the difference between the two emotions.
Guilt is often associated with five scenarios:
- Guilt for something you did wrong: This is the most common and usually refers to something you did that felt wrong. It could include hurting someone with physical or psychological pain and usually corresponds to your own moral code of conduct. For example, you may feel guilty if you lied or cheated on a test.
- Guilt for something you think you did: While similar to the first scenario, this typically occurs if you had a bad situation of some sort and your memory and mind alters the facts to trigger guilty feelings. You may not have actually done anything wrong, but your brain lingers over the situation and causes you to feel guilt.
- Guilt for something you failed to do, but should have done: Similar to regret, failing to do something can lead to guilt. An example would be seeing a crime, such as a teenager stealing a candy bar, but not reporting it.
- Guilt you didn’t help someone: Daily life is busy and you can’t say yes to everyone. Whether this means saying no to your kid’s bake sale, declining an invite to a family party, or not helping an elderly person cross the street, this can take a toll on your emotions and lead to guilt.
- Guilt that you are doing better than someone else: This type of guilt is commonly referred to as survivor’s guilt. According to Psychology Today, “the experience of survivor guilt is one recognized by professionals who work with combat veterans who outlive their fellow troops. Survivor guilt also occurs when people who lose families, friends, or neighbors in disasters themselves remain untouched or, at least, alive.”
As opposed to guilt, shame is different in that it usually does not result out of one of the above-mentioned triggers. Instead, shame usually stems from an inside force of feeling flawed or not good enough. There are four types of shame:
- When you love someone and they don’t love you back.
- Unwanted exposure.
- Disappointment in something you tried to do but failed.
- Exclusion or feeling left out.
Shame and guilt can both lead to unpleasant effects such as sadness, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. If you feel that you need help coping with your feelings, remember that you are not alone. Reach out to a friend or family member, or a counselor.