Guilt Vs. Shame | Understanding Emotions: What is the difference between Guilt and Shame?

We've all experienced the emotions of guilt and shame, but it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between the two. The distinction is important for understanding our emotions, our reactions to them, and how to heal from the painful event that caused guilt and/or shame.

I recently filled out an Emotion Regulation Worksheet 1a to cope with some intense anxiety. Afterward, I worked on the Opposite To Emotion Action activities for the emotion of shame, which is the emotion I identified that I was experiencing that prompted the anxious episode. While this was very helpful, I learned in DBT group yesterday that my primary emotion after an upsetting event with my family recently was actually guilt

So what is the difference between Guilt and Shame?

According to my DBT therapist:

  • Shame is one of our very early emotions, and it is automatic. It starts to show up in children as young as 1-2 years of age. Shame arises when we feel our privacy is violated and/or we are feeling exposed.  An example of when a child of such a young age may feel shame is when they are potty training.  Some children will hide in a corner and poop in their diaper rather than have to poop in front of their caregiver on the toilet. They don't want to feel "exposed."  My therapist said that scientists are not yet sure why shame develops so young other than a hardwired desire for privacy around certain things and not wanting to be exposed for our behaviors, feelings, and sensations that we perceive as shameful.
  • Guilt develops at around 4-6 years of age and is an emotion that results when we know we have done something "wrong" or something that is not in alignment with our values or the type of person that we want to be.

What DBT says about Guilt:

Other words that you may identify that indicate you may be feeling guilty:

  • "apologetic
  • culpability (deserving blame)
  • regret
  • remorse
  • sorry
Some Prompting Events for Feeling Guilt:

  • Doing or thinking something you believe is wrong.
  • Doing or thinking something that violates your personal values.
  • Not doing something you said you would do.
  • Committing a transgression against another person or something you value." (From Skills Training Manual for Disordered Emotion Regulation by Dr. Marsha Linehan.)

What DBT says about Shame:

Other words that you may identify that indicate you may be feeling shame:

  • "contrition (feeling remorseful)
  • culpability
  • discomposure
  • embarrassment
  • humiliation
  • mortification
  • self-invalidation

Some Prompting Events for Feeling Shame:

  • Being rejected by people you care about.
  • Having others find out you have done something wrong.
  • Doing (feeling or thinking) something that people you admire believe is wrong or immoral.
  • Comparing some aspect of yourself or your behavior to a standard and feeling like you do not live up to that standard.
  • Being betrayed by a person you love.
  • Being laughed at, made fun of.
  • Being criticized in public, in front of someone else; remembering public criticism.
  • Being reminded of something wrong, immoral, or "shameful" that you did in the past."  (From Skills Training Manual for Disordered Emotion Regulation by Dr. Marsha Linehan.)

Can you recall a situation where you felt guilt, shame, or a mixture of both?  How does knowing the differences between the two help you understand your emotional experience? Which emotion causes you to judge yourself more harshly?

Thanks for reading.
More soon.

1 comment:

  1. I feel ashamed when I don't know how to do something. It's stupid, I know, I'm aware of it, but can't help it in the moment.

    To give a more specific example: I recently got really angry with my husband when he asked me to try a new position in bed (me on top). I don't know why, but I just felt I couldn't do it, I wasn't skillful enough or confident enough to act like a porn star girl in that moment. I guess I just felt unsecure and ashamed of my lack of skills and just didn't want to show my vulnerability, so I just got mad instead.

    It's an awfull moment to get angry and have a scene, which made me feel even more embarassed afterwards!

    I think it's got to do with my need of being perfect, know it all, do it all better than everybody else. And of course, I can't be perfect and when I'm not, I get really angry at myself and take it out on others.

    I love your blog Debbie, it seriously made me think more of myself, my actions, my thoughts, my past experiences! Your simply amazing!



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