It’s common for people to confuse the feelings of shame and guilt. I often hear my clients in my Los Angeles psychotherapy office say they feel guilty, when after more exploration it turns out that they are actually feeling shame rather than guilt. So what’s the difference? And why is it important to distinguish between shame versus guilt?
In the moment guilt and shame can feel very similar, but they are in fact different. Guilt is the instinctual feeling that we are doing, or have done something against our value system. In short, we know we are doing something wrong. It’s connected to an action, and is an inherit response we use to guide us in the direction that feels best. Shame is a deeper experience, a state of mind that can feel farther away and is often more difficult to understand. It’s the feeling that we are wrong. It targets our core beliefs about ourselves rather than just our behavior. It says “I did something, so therefore I am wrong”. Shame is much more detrimental than guilt. It carries a voice of self-deprecation. The thoughts usually come with a physical experience. Some people feel it in their stomachs, others in their throats. Some cough when it surfaces and others revert into a shutdown state of silence.
It’s important to know the difference because guilt has a healthy purpose and shame feels toxic. While many can struggle with guilt, it is often easier to work through than shame. Shame at its strongest stimulates escapism through substance use or an eating disorder. In most, shame causes anxiety, unreasonable personal expectations, or impulsive decision making. It feels horrible and the natural response is to avoid it and shove it away. But if someone can recognize it and work through it in therapy they can feel empowered, more in control, and better about themselves.