Shame and guilt are on the same continuum of negative emotions and tend to be reactive, but they hold different meanings. Shame encompasses feelings that come from others or our own inner voice. These feelings often make us feel as though we’re not living up to certain standards. Guilt tends to feel as though we’ve failed ourselves or others in some way.
What Is Shame?
Shame makes us feel badly about ourselves, equating the negative feeling with being a bad person in some way instead of having done a bad thing. Shame is generally unhealthy as it impacts our self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, especially if these feelings are not addressed. It also tends to make it harder to forgive ourselves.
Signs of Shame
Shame can present in many different ways including reliance on drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. It can also cause self-loathing, issues with anger, and desire to step away from relationships and other things you normally love.
Here are four signs of shame:
- Self-hate/self-blame: Shame makes people blame themselves for anything and everything that goes wrong. Any kind of criticism is felt as a slight and taken very personally.
- Anger/rage: It’s easy to blame others as much as it’s easy to blame ourselves. When we blame others, the redirection can make us feel better temporarily. People tend to do this because their self-esteem is so low and they no longer want to acknowledge their own feelings of shame.
- Substance abuse: It’s common for feelings of shame to cause people to use alcohol and drugs to cope. It might offer short term relief of the negative feelings; however, it’s easy for drugs and alcohol to become a crutch.
- Feeling withdrawn: Wanting to withdraw, avoid people, and cancel plans is common with shame. It often causes people to want to disappear or take a step back from people and things they love.1
What Is Guilt?
Guilt makes people feel badly because of something they did or didn’t do, which can trigger deeper feelings of depression, despair, anger, and anxiety; however, when used as a point of reflection, is more likely to be used for personal development. It allows people to recognize what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.
Signs of Guilt
Guilt can present as having trouble sleeping or general restlessness. It also might appear as volatile emotions, avoidance or dismissal, or overjustification.
Here are four signs of guilt:
- Emotional: Someone who is feeling guilty may be emotionally volatile. They will often use emotionally-charged language, which can express anything from vulnerability to anger.
- Avoidant/dismissive: Avoiding and dismissing a topic is the easiest way to deflect feelings of guilt. The goal is usually to avoid a trigger, whether that may be a person, activity, or topic.
- Sleep issues: Nighttime is when we start to think a lot and can become restless, have trouble falling or staying asleep, or experience nightmares. In general, sleep disturbances are one of the top ways our bodies are impacted by our emotions.
- Overjustification: If someone is sharing every reason why they need to take a certain action, it may be due to not feeling confident and secure in their actions due to underlying feelings of guilt.2
Guilt vs. Shame: Key Differences
The main difference between guilt and shame is that guilt can be healthy or unhealthy. Shame, on the other hand, is always unhealthy. Helpful guilt involves feelings of discomfort about an objectively bad choice. For example, a drunk driver feels guilty for hitting someone. This can be potentially positive because it could prompt them to ask for forgiveness and make real changes to their behavior.
Unhelpful guilt is more similar to shame (like if someone guilt-trips you into feeling shameful), though not entirely the same. It’s the discomfort of doing something that doesn’t align with unrealistic standards for success. For example, you forget one of your many co-workers’ names. Ultimately, this just leads to self-punishment.
Shame relates to a feeling of being fundamentally flawed. For example, you might feel worthless simply for taking up space in the world. In this case, we often see ourselves as defective. Naturally, this is an intensely painful experience that requires self-compassion.3
Effects of Shame & Guilt on Mental Health
While guilt and shame affect people at every age, its impacts are most commonly felt during the teenage and young adult years. These stages of life are crucial to understanding ourselves separate from our families. In some cases, shame and guilt can lead to risky behaviors and the use of unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Additionally, young adults may be in the social stage where they’re dating and making new connections while, at the same time, may be dealing with ending relationships. It’s easy to feel insecure or like you’re hard to love. This can trigger shame or guilt, leading to attachment issues later in life. It can also lead young adults into toxic relationships or cause them to lose their sense of self.4
Long term, it can be easy for anyone at any age to suppress their emotions. In relationships, this will create a lot of issues for the couple and family. Bottling up emotions never helps anyone and just further validates the false negative inner monologue.
These feelings also trigger deeper feelings of depression, anxiety, and trauma. It’s hard to live a life where every day is filled with mental fog. As such, it’s really easy to use risky behaviors to cope with and avoid feeling feelings. When people do this long term, they can become addicted to substances and start a really negative pattern that can be hard to break.5
5 Ways to Overcome Feelings of Guilt & Shame
Shame and guilt can both be painful, but there are ways to triumph over these difficult feelings. For instance, you might talk to a professional therapist or counselor. With their advice, you could pursue medication, try expression through art, or arm yourself with knowledge.
Here are five ways to overcome feelings of shame and guilt:
1. Talk to a Therapist
Getting objective feedback and guidance from a professional is helpful in addressing emotional distress. It may be the exact thing you need to help you change your inner critic’s voice and remember your authentic one.
Meditating can help you process emotions differently and react in a way that benefits your own personal cause. This process slows your mind down and gives you the space to consider how you would prefer to feel and permission to let go of any negative feelings.
Writing things down gets them out of your head. Seeing or even hearing the words can help you realize how you feel. It can also help you identify negative thought patterns and explore where they come from and why. When we put our feelings of shame and guilt on paper and separate ourselves from it, we can think objectively about where these feelings come from and help identify the root cause.
4. Creative/Art Therapies
Channeling emotions into art can be rewarding. It helps us see through a different lens, cultivate self-love, and face inner adversity.
5. Read Books on the Topic
Other people’s stories validate our own and give us something to relate to. They can also give us hope for something better and the push to finally address harmful emotions. Any genre of book that resonates with you and empowers you can be healing.
How to Get Help For Shame & Guilt
All licensed therapists are equipped to help people struggling with feelings of shame and guilt. Note that having a strong relationship with your therapist is more important than the specific type of therapy they provide. That said, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is backed by a great amount of research that suggests its effectiveness for treating shame and guilt.
Once you find a therapist, you will create a treatment plan together and learn about other types of therapy, such as group therapy. Depending on the type of issues you’re facing, marital or family therapy may also be recommended. It’s important to go in with an open mind and a goal to address the underlying reason why you are feeling so much shame and/or guilt.
How to Find a Therapist
The best way to find a therapist is to search an online directory, reviewing providers based on your preferences and insurance. Research clinician profiles online and select a few to contact for initial conversations. Many therapists offer a free phone consultation, providing an opportunity to evaluate whether they’re the right fit.
Another way to locate a therapist is through personal reference. If you are in a circle that can openly discuss needing mental health resources, ask for their advice. Everyone is different but asking is a good first step. Requesting a referral from your physician is also an option. This gives your physician an opportunity to collaborate with you and find you the right type of treatment.
Final Thoughts on Guilt vs. Shame
If you’re experiencing any kind of guilt (helpful or unhelpful) or shame, just know that you are not alone. Even if you feel isolated, help is always available. Consider talking to your physician or a mental health expert today about the best option for you, which may include regular sessions of CBT.