What Is The Difference Between Shame and Guilt?

upset and crying/yelling woman

As you move through the world, you develop ideas about right and wrong. Society, religion, education, and family ties influence your moral code. You may experience feelings of shame or guilt when you behave in ways that oppose your values. Shame and guilt are often used interchangeably, but there are differences between shame and guilt that influence your behavior and self-esteem.

Making mistakes is just part of being human. Sometimes, our behaviors negatively impact ourselves and our loved ones. Understanding the differences between shame and guilt can help you evaluate your reaction to your errors and learn to use mistakes as tools for improving your life and relationships. This blog will discuss the differences between shame and guilt and give you tools for moving through these complicated emotions.

Differences Between Shame and Guilt

self guilt

When you make a mistake, you might feel sad or angry. For some people, errors in judgment cause physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety. You may have an upset stomach and a racing heart by experiencing changes in your breathing. So how do you know if you’re feeling shame or guilt? The short answer is that guilt is behavior focused while shame is so focused.

Let’s say you forget your brother’s birthday. A guilty reaction might be to say, “oh no, I forgot my brother’s birthday. I should call him and apologize for forgetting.” That statement focuses on the behavior of forgetting. Feelings of guilt in the situation might also cause you to set a reminder in your phone calendar so that you never forget your brother’s birthday.

For someone prone to feelings of shame, forgetting their brother’s birthday may cause self-talk along the lines of, “I can’t believe I forgot my brother’s birthday. I never remember anything. I’m a terrible sibling. I don’t even understand why my family still talks to me.” Shame says I did a terrible thing, so I am a horrible person unworthy of being loved.

Guilty feelings prompt us to act, apologize, repair relationships, and change our behavior. Shame just sends us into a negative self-talk spiral that can damage our self-esteem and mental health. Most of us are prone to either shame or guilt, depending on our upbringing and how we view ourselves. The good news is that even if you’re shame-prone instead of guilt-prone, you can learn to stop the spiral of shame and use your negative emotions to improve your behavior, and repair relationships.

Use Guilt to Change Your Behavior

Whether you’re feeling embarrassed, guilty, angry, or sad, the feeling is temporary and designed to signal a need for change. When you make mistakes, you may feel sorry about how it impacted a relationship or angry with yourself for not living up to your value system. Guilt-prone people constructively use their emotions, so resolving guilt becomes an opportunity for personal growth.

Take Responsibility

The first step in using guilt constructively is to take responsibility for your poor choices or behavior. If you lose your temper while shuffling children out of the house in the morning, you may shout at them or threaten to take away privileges. Yelling doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, and you don’t have to feel guilty all day. Acknowledging that you let your emotions about your children’s behavior get the best of you is the first step in moving through this painful feeling of guilt.


blame on word blocks

Once you acknowledge your mistake, apologizing is the first step and repairing relationships. When you lose your temper with your kids, it’s easy to point out why their behavior made you shout, but that will not help you overcome guilt and improve your behavior next time.

Next time this happens, try saying something to your children like, “I lost my temper and yelled at you. I shouldn’t have done that, and I’m sorry.” This statement places ownership of your behavior on you, which is where it belongs.


The next step in the constructive use of guilt is to problem solve and find ways to change your behavior moving forward. Perhaps waking yourself up earlier, so you’re ready for the day and have time to devote to your children’s needs in the morning will work for you. Maybe your children need to take on more responsibility for getting out of the house.

Depending on the type of behavior, it may be a good idea to have a problem-solving conversation with the people your behavior affected. You may solicit ideas from your spouse about how to better handle household responsibilities. If the conflict involves coworkers, you might ask for input from them about how they’d like your behavior to change. These conversations require vulnerability, and a safe space.

Learn From Your Mistakes

Whether you involve others in problem-solving or not, you can still devise ways to change your behavior. If you have trouble problem-solving or taking steps to change your behavior, it might help to involve a coach, therapist, or even a trusted family member. When your behavior aligns with your morals and values, you’re living life in alignment with your purpose, and happiness is easier to find.

The Problem With Shame

girl upset on a chair

Shame is self-destructive. It prompts you to enter a negative self-talk space where you tear yourself down. The anger resulting from shame isn’t focused on problem-solving – it’s focused on destroying you and may even cause you to be aggressive toward others.

Shame is often internal. However, many people use shame to try to control the behavior of others. Shaming someone for their mistakes or choices causes disconnection and does nothing to correct bad behavior.

Decreases Self-Esteem

Shame and other forms of self-criticism can cause low self-esteem. The self-talk caused by shame may say things like:

  • “I’m a terrible person.”
  • “I can never do anything right.”
  • “I don’t deserve to be loved because of my mistakes.”

This type of self-blame can cause people to engage in self-punishment. Self-punishment can result in leaving relationships, avoiding closeness with others, cutting, substance abuse, or other destructive behaviors.

Promotes Unethical Behavior

A poor self-image associated with shame may promote more unethical behavior. If someone says, “I cheated on my spouse because I’m a terrible person.” They may continue the unethical behavior because they have a skewed sense of self. Rather than taking ownership and working to stop a specific behavior, shame allows you to continue shirking responsibility.

Shame Can Impact Depression

When you experience shame instead of guilt when you make poor choices, you may feel hopeless. Your sense of self-worth suffers so much that you lose hope of ever becoming the type of person you want to be. If shame causes you to see yourself as lazy, mean, or unworthy, it is difficult to pull yourself out of that space. This hopelessness can cause or worsen symptoms of depression. The key to stopping shame from causing despair is to stop the negative self-talk before it gets out of hand and learn to use your mistakes as tools to build the life you want.

Get Help Turning Mistakes into Personal Growth

guilt free

Whether shame-prone or guilt-prone, getting help from a counselor or psychotherapist can make it easier to experience the emotional progress necessary to use your mistakes as growth opportunities. Everyone fumbles, loses their temper, and forgets to do essential tasks – but with the proper support, you can use all of your mistakes to grow.

Our team at SMPsychotherapy uses an individualized approach to help you identify personal goals, create a plan to accomplish them, and learn to create the life you want. Your mental health is a massive part of your well-being, so reach out to our office today to schedule an appointment and get started on your path to personal growth.

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