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Guilt and Shame: what’s the difference?

Updated: Mar 14

Guilt and Shame - lady in deep thought

What is guilt?

Guilt is a complex emotional state that arises when a person believes or recognizes that they have violated a moral or ethical standard. It involves feelings of remorse, self-reproach, or regret for actions or thoughts that are perceived as wrong or harmful. Guilt is often linked to a sense of responsibility for causing harm to oneself or others, and it can be accompanied by a desire to make amends or seek forgiveness.

Guilt serves a psychological and social function by promoting prosocial behaviour, encouraging individuals to reflect on their actions, and motivating them to make positive changes. However, excessive or chronic guilt can be detrimental to mental health and well-being. It's essential to distinguish between healthy guilt that promotes personal growth and irrational or false guilt that may lead to unnecessary emotional distress.


Guilt can be categorized into two main types:


True Guilt: This type of guilt is based on a genuine acknowledgment of wrongdoing or a violation of one's own moral code. It stems from a sincere recognition of one's responsibility for a particular action.

An example of true guilt could be a situation where someone borrows a valuable item from a friend and accidentally breaks it while in their care. Despite the mishap being unintentional, the individual feels genuine guilt for causing damage to their friend's valued possession. They recognise their responsibility in the situation and understand the emotional and material value of the item to their friend. This true guilt prompts them to take immediate action, such as apologising sincerely and offering to replace or repair the damaged item.

False Guilt: Sometimes, individuals may experience guilt even when they have not committed any wrongdoing. False guilt may be irrational and may arise from unrealistic expectations, societal pressure, or an overly critical self-perception.  False guilt is very often associated with grief which can make the grief more complex.

An example of false guilt related to grief could be a person feeling guilty for not spending enough time with a deceased loved one before they passed away. Despite having legitimate reasons, such as work commitments or geographical distance, the person may still struggle with guilt. This misplaced guilt arises from unrealistic expectations or societal norms demanding constant availability for loved ones, even when circumstances render it difficult.

Another example of false guilt might involve someone feeling guilty for circumstances beyond their control, such as their parent's divorce. Despite having no responsibility for their parent's relationship issues, the individual may feel guilty for not being able to prevent or fix the situation. This belief that they are somehow to blame for events that are outside of their control is irrational, and leads to false guilt. The guilt is unwarranted and may lead to unnecessary self-blame and emotional distress.


What is shame?

Shame is a powerful and complex emotion characterised by feelings of embarrassment, guilt, or humiliation. It arises from a sense of inadequacy, unworthiness, or continual failure to meet personal or societal expectations. Shame can stem from both internal factors (such as self-judgment or perceived flaws), and external factors (such as societal norms or criticism from others). Shame often drives a desire to hide or withdraw from others, and can have significant impacts on mental and emotional well-being.

It's important to note that not all shame is harmful. Healthy shame acts as a reminder of our human limitations, acknowledging that we're fallible and inherently bound by societal boundaries and imperfections.

Shame can, however, also be toxic: for example, it could involve a person who experienced childhood trauma, such as physical or emotional abuse, who then internalises feelings of worthlessness and self-blame as a result. This individual might carry a pervasive belief that they are fundamentally flawed or unlovable due to the abuse they endured. As a result, they may struggle with low self-esteem, engage in self-destructive behaviours, or have difficulty forming healthy relationships. Despite external success or positive feedback from others, the toxic shame they carry continues to influence their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in detrimental ways.


What is the difference between guilt and shame?


Guilt and shame are related emotions, but they have distinct characteristics and psychological implications:


Focus on Behaviour vs. Self:

Guilt: Primarily involves feeling bad about a specific behaviour or action. It is related to a sense of responsibility for a wrongdoing and the desire to make amends.  i.e. I have done something bad.

Shame: Involves feeling bad about oneself as a person. It is more focused on a person's identity and character, often arising from a perceived failure or inadequacy. i.e. I am bad!

Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide and eating disorders.  Guilt is inversely correlated to all of these issues.


External vs. Internal Focus:

Guilt: Typically has an external focus, emphasising the impact of one's actions on others. It motivates individuals to repair relationships or correct their behaviour.

Shame: Has an internal focus, causing individuals to feel a deep sense of inadequacy or unworthiness. It may lead to a desire to hide or withdraw from others.

Behavioural Response:

Guilt: Often leads to reparative or corrective actions. Individuals experiencing guilt are more likely to take responsibility for their actions, apologise, and try to make amends.

Shame: Can lead to avoidance or withdrawal. Individuals may be less inclined to address the issue openly and may try to hide or isolate themselves due to feelings of embarrassment or worthlessness.

Process Over Time:

Guilt: Tends to be more focused on a specific event or behaviour and is considered a more adaptive emotion when it prompts positive behavioural changes.

Shame: Tends have a more pervasive and enduring impact on a person's self-concept, potentially affecting long-term self-esteem and self-worth.

Cultural and Social Influences:

Guilt: Often seen as a moral emotion and can be influenced by cultural and societal norms regarding ethical behaviour.

Shame: Can be more influenced by societal expectations and perceptions of social identity, potentially leading to cultural variations in how shame is experienced and expressed.


While guilt can serve as a constructive force for personal growth and ethical behaviour, excessive or chronic shame can be detrimental to mental well-being. It's important for individuals to differentiate between healthy guilt and toxic shame and to seek support when dealing with these complex emotions.

First Published in Counselling Directory, 12/02/24

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