Guilt vs. Shame: Making the Changes We Want

Dan Duncan's picture

Guilt vs ShameFor many years, people have used the terms "guilt" and "shame" to describe emotions liberally. I have always seen them as distinct from each other in very important ways. What is important about understanding the difference is the ability to make changes to things that we have struggled to change for most of our lives.

Guilt: Guilt is an emotion that we feel when we have done something wrong. It acts as our conscious to help motivate us to "right the wrongs" in our life. While we experience guilt as negative, it has a positive impact on our life and those around us.

Shame: Shame is the opposite of guilt because we experience shame not about what we have done, but about who we are. We do not move or act because of shame. We avoid and protect because of shame, and often the way we protect creates new consequences for ourselves. The emotion of shame hurts so much that we will not and cannot touch it without great emotional risk.

I use these definitions of guilt and shame in therapy with my client’s. This is especially useful when a client comes in and reports all the things they are doing to make a difference, but are not experiencing the change they seek. They often cannot affect change because they keep addressing the guilt they feel for something and avoid the shame they feel around the same issue.

Finding the ability to understand the difference and addressing them as distinct feelings is the start to making the changes we want. If you want to explore this idea further please see the webinar on  "Improving Relationships Through New Responses to Old Problems" or the blogs "Unconditional Positive Regard: Is it Achievable" and "Healthy Relationships with Unhealthy People."


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