Many people use ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ interchangeably, but they are, in fact, different. Here’s how to tell them apart.

It’s normal to feel bad about things sometimes. We all make mistakes, like forgetting people’s names or failing a test because we didn’t study hard enough.

But what about when you feel so bad for what you did that you can’t separate the behavior from who you are as a person? Is that shame or guilt?

Knowing the difference, as well as the root cause of your feelings, can help you find the best way to move forward.

From the time we’re very young, shame and guilt can both serve as a compass to help us figure out how to interact with our community.

Research shows that both emotions can arise during social conflict, either when you do something you consider wrong or you deviate from a social norm.

Studies also suggest that each emotion can be felt in public, like when someone calls you out, or privately, like when you do something that no one else knows about.

Shame and guilt are both closely tied to:

  • disgust
  • embarrassment
  • humiliation
  • regret
  • remorse
  • self-consciousness

Yet there are some key differences between them.

“In my practice, I find that shame shows up in things that clients repeatedly bring up as character flaws, integral parts of who they are,” says Tracey Cobb, a licensed professional counselor in Atlanta, Georgia.

“They’re unable to see themselves separate from the act or infraction.”

“Clients who have problems with guilt can see their mistake and acknowledge their part in the situation, but they don’t have the overwhelming feeling and urge to see themselves as flawed or damaged due to that mistake,” says Cobb.

There’s a link between shame or guilt and mental health conditions, but it’s usually not a cause-and-effect scenario.

It may be more useful to think of persistent shame and guilt as possible symptoms of an existing mental health condition, which can make other symptoms more intense.

“Mental health conditions don’t necessarily develop from guilt, unless the guilt is pervasive and makes life unmanageable,” says Cobb.

“Guilt can be found in depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and bipolar disorder,” she says. “Shame can be pervasive and often show up in these same mental health disorders.”

Shame may also play a role in:

There may be more than one type of shame.

In his book, “Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem,” psychotherapist Dr. Joseph Burgo identifies four types of shame:

  • Unrequited love. For example, being neglected by a parent.
  • Exclusion. For example, being ostracized from a group at school.
  • Unwanted exposure. For example, being humiliated in public.
  • Disappointed expectation. For example, failing at a goal.

Guilt, on the other hand, may exist on a spectrum, from temporary to pathological.

Pathological guilt can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). If this guilt centers around moral or religious themes (like sinning or committing blasphemy), it’s known as scrupulosity.

The simplest way to differentiate between the two is to remember that guilt is about action, whereas shame is about character.

Research shows that shame touches on the painful gap between who you are and the “ideal self” you wish to be, which is often shaped by societal expectations.

GuiltShame
I feel bad about getting ink on her coat.I’m a bad person for getting ink on her coat.
I’m embarrassed about insulting her artwork.I’m such an idiot for insulting her artwork.
It was wrong of me to cheat on him.I don’t deserve to be in a loving relationship.
That dress wasn’t very flattering on me.I’m ugly and didn’t deserve to go to the party.
My decision caused us all to fall behind on the group project.My worthless character caused us all to fall behind on the group project.

Research shows that shame and guilt manifest differently.

Those who feel shame are more likely to:

  • feel angry
  • avoid their triggers
  • have low self-esteem
  • engage in self-destructive behaviors

Those who feel guilt are more likely to:

  • apologize
  • attempt repair
  • feel compassion for others

Older research shows that the physiological response may be different as well. Shame can increase inflammatory markers in your body, while guilt hasn’t been shown to do that.

It may take some time to feel less guilty or ashamed, but it is possible.

Question it

“It’s important to go back to why those feelings are adaptive initially,” says Tracy Keller, a licensed professional counselor in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “They teach us right from wrong.”

As we grow up, we don’t need to rely on guilt or shame as much as a child learning their way around the world, she says.

Keller adds that we should question the feelings when they arise. Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this way?” or “What brought this on?”

If you can determine the reasons behind the feelings, then Keller says you can “take away some of the negative feelings tied to guilt and shame.”

Try to identify the source

You didn’t come out of the womb feeling guilt or shame. It came from somewhere. Keller recommends that you try to trace back to the origins of where you received these ideas.

Ask yourself:

  • Where did I learn this?
  • Who gave me this message when I was younger?
  • Was it a parent, a teacher, a peer, or multiple people?

Consider examining your triggers

Journaling and reflecting activities can help you increase self-awareness, identify your emotions, and examine possible triggers for these feelings, says Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist in Brentwood, Tennessee.

“Learn to catch yourself before you go into a spiral of negative self-talk,” he says. “In many cases, you may wish to seek help from a mental health professional to support you.”

To begin that process, you may want to try our search tools to find the right therapist.

Try to practice compassion

Would you call your baby an “idiot”? Your best friend “disgusting? Or your partner “worthless”?

If you’re having a hard time being kind to yourself, consider how you would speak to someone you love. They don’t deserve that kind of language, and neither do you.

“It’s important to learn how to separate your actions from your identity,” says Wind. “You might have made mistakes, but they don’t define you as a person. Be compassionate with yourself, as you would be with someone else.”

Guilt and shame are useful feedback mechanisms. But left unchecked, they can interfere with our sense of self, close relationships, and how we show up in the world.

Working with a professional and doing reflective activities can help you better understand the context of your feelings and manage unhelpful thoughts that may be contributing to feelings of shame and guilt.

You may also find it useful to watch best-selling author Brené Brown’s TedTalk, “Listening to Shame,” or reading Tara Brach’s book, “Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha.”

Remember: You’re doing better than you think you are. Let yourself be a human. You’re perfectly imperfect, just like the rest of us.