What is the difference between guilt and shame? We often tend to use the two words interchangeably because shame is closely connected to guilt. However, to understand the impact each can have on our mental health and behaviours and what can cause these feelings, it helps first to know the difference.
What is guilt? What is shame?
Guilt arises from our actions and our awareness that those actions may have harmed someone else. We experience guilt when we feel a sense of responsibility or remorse for an offence, crime, or any other action or behaviour that we deem wrong, unfavourable, or regrettable.
The other important thing to note is guilt can be either real or imagined, and people can even feel guilt over things that they are not responsible for. For example, maybe sometime over the past year, you could maintain a good job or even start a new one yet felt guilty because someone close to you could not. Guilt over something you have done to someone else can already lead to feelings of remorse or embarrassment, yet this “false guilt” can be even more detrimental to your mental state because it is regarding something over which you have no control.
In either case, guilt is a common and easy feeling to recognize because guilt is related to our beliefs over what is right or wrong or moral versus immoral. Guilt can only be experienced when you feel that your action is not only wrong but significant. We know when you feel guilty because it usually involves a behaviour you regret almost immediately due to your bothered conscience.
So, what about shame? To experience guilt, you make the judgment that something you have done is wrong, immoral, or inconsiderate. When you feel shame, on the other hand, you feel that your self is wrong. Shame can arise from the awareness of your guilt, but this self-criticism of yourself in a negative light does not always arise from something you have done wrong. Shame involves feelings about yourself, whereas guilt involves someone else. In other words, we feel guilty about what we do; we feel shame over who we are.
As an inward-focused feeling, shame is a painful feeling that arises and is generally a more profound and harmful emotion. Shame makes us feel disappointed, not always about something we have done, but about who we are. People experience shame when they view themselves as worthless or even unworthy. If you feel as if your nature is flawed, you may feel unworthy of love, belonging, or connection.
What is trauma-induced guilt and shame?
Guilt is a common feeling for people who develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or have experienced a traumatic event. The feeling is called trauma-related guilt. It refers to the unpleasant feeling of regret that arises from the belief that you could or should have acted differently at the time of the traumatic event, whether you were the witness or the one who directly experienced it. Some examples of guilt-induced trauma would be someone who witnessed an assault and felt guilty over not stepping in to help or a victim of sexual abuse who may feel guilty for having not fought back.
Experiencing a lot of trauma-related guilt has been connected to the development of PTSD, and PTSD often leads to trauma-induced shame, which can worsen one’s PTSD symptoms. Or the trauma-related shame can be what contributes to the development of PTSD.
Trauma-induced shame is a common feeling that occurs after a traumatic event, and those who experience shame will internally hurt and blame themselves for the event which caused their disorder. Trauma-related shame tends to be significantly more intense than any other emotion tied to PTSD, so much so that it is the one emotion that significantly hinders the recovery process for those with PTSD.
What is the difference between regular guilt and shame as opposed to trauma-induced guilt and shame?
The most significant differences between regular shame and guilt lie in the severity and consequences between the two. Just like regular guilt, trauma-related guilt can also come as a result of something out of one’s control. Yet, along with trauma-related shame, trauma-related guilt can contribute to depression, social anxiety, low self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts. On the other hand, regular shame can lead to behaviours such as diverting blame, lashing out, or withdrawing from others.
Trauma-induced shame, whether connected to PTSD or not, can prevent people from living a normal, healthy life. The shame that follows a traumatic event can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms that act as barriers for processing traumatic experiences and emotions; this often will prevent someone from seeking help because the shame causes one to criticize and question their strength and self-worth.
So not only is the stigma of shame that one might experience following a traumatic event unconstructive in the sense of them not seeking treatment, but shame alone (regular or trauma-induced) is problematic on its own. If you remember how guilt is related to something we have done that we feel is wrong, what this also means is that guilt can drive us to fix it. Guilt can be used as a tool to overcome conflict, whereas shame is much less constructive.
Shame is not just about feeling bad about something that has been done; it means feeling poorly about oneself. The ability to truly grasp this difference as a mental health professional will make a significant difference in the effectiveness of your approach and the lives of your clients who you want to heal.
Guilt and shame are prevalent issues in the mental health world, and the better we understand them, the better we can understand what our client is going through. The sooner we can help them get better. We believe this topic is important for mental health professionals as shame and guilt can impact anyone, and we want to support you with the knowledge to help your clients recover.
MAGentix is hosting an exclusive workshop on trauma-induced guilt and shame on February 26, covering comprehensive material and tools to grow your knowledge and confidence in this critical subject. This event is approaching quickly, so sign up online or contact us if you have any questions!
Brené Brown. “Shame v. Guilt.” Brené Brown, 22 Aug. 2019, brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/.
Carissa Joy. “Guilt and Shame.” Beyond Intractability, 28 Feb. 2017, www.beyondintractability.org/essay/guilt_shame.
Greg W. “Shame: Why Does It Come from Trauma?” Quest Psychology Services, 4 Aug. 2020, questpsychologyservices.co.uk/shame-why-does-it-come-from-trauma.
Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, Ph.D. “Why Your Whole Self Feels Ashamed But Only Part of You Feels Guilty.” Verywell Mind, 27 Nov. 2020, www.verywellmind.com/what-is-shame-425328.
Kvarnstrom, Elisabet. “Treating PTSD as a Shame Disorder, and the Role of Compassion.” Bridges to Recovery, Bridges to Recovery, 26 Dec. 2018, www.bridgestorecovery.com/blog/treating-ptsd-as-a-shame-disorder-and-the-role-of-compassion/.
Matthew Tull, Ph.D. “Why People With PTSD Experience Trauma-Related Guilt.” Verywell Mind, 22 Mar. 2020, www.verywellmind.com/ptsd-and-guilt-2797537#:~:text=Trauma%2Drelated%20guilt%20refers%20to,to%20save%20a%20fallen%20soldier.
Join our Online Seminar with Natalie Zlodre, MSW, RSW
February 26, 2021
9:00am – 4:00pm