The Difference Between Guilt and Shame

Patrick O’Connell
Staff Writer

PC: Frankie Leon

The way we talk about emotions, linguistically, affects the way we think about them. At the same time, the vocabulary we use for it is limited by our language. Some languages have words for emotions we struggle to articulate. The German word “schadenfreude” refers to the feeling of being glad that someone else is suffering and not yourself. Some languages have words for colors that English users don’t think about. Some languages have fewer words for colors than English. Despite the language difference, humans experience the same sensations of color and emotion, but think of them in different ways.

Two words in the English language which are commonly misunderstood are ‘shame’ and ‘guilt.’ Through my personal experience in therapy and groups, I feel it is important for people to understand the differences between the two in order to cope with them. 

Guilt and shame are not the same emotions, although they seem similar and can be rooted by the same triggers. When someone does something wrong, like saying something extremely rude to a friend and hurting their feelings, they will feel guilt soon after. That person can then apologize and perhaps that guilt goes away. Guilt is like anger in that it’s triggered, but reaches a catharsis and most likely goes away. Even embarrassment, a cousin of guilt, will pass. Often, even, embarrassment and guilt can become something to laugh about in the future.

However, shame doesn’t pass so easily. People feel shame for being overweight or underweight. They feel it for being poor or privileged. It lives in childhood memories when we look for where everything went wrong. Shame feels like guilt but it can’t be changed. Shame returns every day with the same story, the same bad feelings and the same message of “you’re trash for being who you are.” While guilt is directed at action, shame is directed at qualities of the self. It’s guilt for being alive or for being something that you shouldn’t be.

As anyone who’s seen the Pixar film “Inside Out” is aware, emotions exist to provide some important cue to the self. Guilt tells us, “you shouldn’t have done that.” Anger says, “you shouldn’t allow this to happen.” Fear says, “you should get away from this.”

But all shame says is, “There is something fundamentally wrong with you that can’t be fixed.”

There really is nothing to learn from that. It’s self condemnation for no intrinsic purpose. It’s useless to feel shame. You could argue that shame drives people to change for the better. Someone could feel ashamed for being overweight so they get into shape. A drug addict could be ashamed of the burden they put on their loved ones so they get sober. People feel shame as a flaw of their being so they change. But there’s an emotion that accomplishes the same task without any suffering.

Love. Particularly, self-love.

Shame says, “I’m fat, I need to lose weight or nobody will love me.” Self-love says, “I’m fat so I should get into good health because I deserve to be healthy and I know I want that for myself.” Shame says, “I’m an addict and I need to get sober or I’ll die alone.” Self-love says, “I’m an addict and I need to get better because there are people who want me to be better.”

The difference is one doesn’t need to destroy themselves to accomplish the task of motivation.

Shame is, I would say, a completely useless emotion. We can’t help how we feel, that’s a certainty. If we could choose how to feel, there would be a lot less suicides in the world. However, emotions tend to carry a story with them. We tell ourselves that story over and over until it becomes our religion– The Holy Church of Why I Deserve to Die Alone. Shame tells a story of pity and anguish. If one hears that story enough, it becomes their life. While you can’t control your feelings, you can tell yourself a different story. If you tell yourself a story of self love and just let yourself feel compassion towards yourself, maybe you’ll start to believe it. Am I essentially telling people to lie to themselves till they feel better? Kind of. But the story of shame is a lie, too. We just have to pick a better lie, I guess. 



Categories: Opinions

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