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SHAME AND GUILT: Understanding the Differences and Their Impact on Mental Health

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

Although they both fall on the same spectrum as unpleasant emotions and have the propensity to trigger strong reactions, shame, and guilt have distinct meanings.

What is SHAME?

Shame preys on our feelings or the perception of ourselves. It produces thoughts that target your value, self-worth/self-esteem, such that one thinks negatively about themselves. Our surrounding environment and social circle may either confirm or reject these unwanted thoughts. Often, we are our worst critics and find ways to reinforce the shame when there is evidence to the contrary.

When one believes they have done something dishonorable, immoral, or wrong, they experience a sense of embarrassment or humiliation. Often our first response to shame is the attempt to cover up embarrassment, hide, or withdraw. The perception that you are inherently flawed might accompany persistent shame. Shame can be challenging to recognize in oneself.

Signs of SHAME

  • Feeling unlovable

  • Believing you deserve to be mistreated or abused

  • Using drugs or alcohol more

  • Self-loathing

  • Anger

  • Destructive behaviors/attitudes-rage

  • Pretending to be something you are not. Masking

  • Self-abandonment and repression/suppression of feelings

  • A desire to retreat/withdraw/hide from others or the world around you

What is GUILT?

Guilt triggers our center of morality or integrity as it relates to wrongdoing or deception. Guilt prompts us to make right what was wrong or reconcile negative balances with others. For example, we may apologize for our actions, repay a debt, or take responsibility for a mistake made. When a wrong is made right or reconciled the feeling of guilt quickly dissipates. This is not generally the case with shame.

Guilt causes people to feel bad about something they did or didn't do. While this can lead to more intense emotions of despair, wrath, and anxiety, it is more likely to be used for personal growth when it serves as a point of reflection. It enables individuals to pinpoint the issue and

determine how to avoid it in the future as well as make amends if possible.

Signs of GUILT

  • Low self-esteem

  • Attempts at reparation or to make amends.

  • Facial flushing/blushing

  • Anxiety, depressed moods

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Nausea, headaches

  • Avoidance of people, places, or events linked to the cause of guilt

  • Shifts in energy levels

  • Emotional outbursts

  • Appetite changes

The primary distinction between guilt and shame is that one often leads to reconciliation and wholeness while the other leads to a slow disintegration of the self.

Impact of Shame and Guilt on Mental Health

Although guilt and shame have an impact on people of all ages and to varying degrees. Shame and guilt unchecked and unchallenged can lead to risky behaviors, depression, all forms of anxiety, and other harmful coping techniques (drug abuse/addiction, lashing out at others, projections).

BUT WAIT ! There is hope.

Ways to Jettison guilt:

  • Own your mistake and repent

  • Apologize to those you have wronged. Whether they accept your apology or not is not yours to decide

  • Make amends or corrective actions if possible (pay the debt owed if possible)

  • Reflect and learn from your errors.

  • Forgive yourself!

Ways to Jettison shame:

  • Whatever your faith beliefs, know that Jesus saves, heals, and makes whole.

  • Remind yourself you are loved, you are valued, and your life has meaning and purpose.

  • Not because I say so but because Jesus says so. See John 3:16.

  • You are a product of your past not a prisoner of it. Don’t be held captive by something/someone you cannot change.

  • Changing behaviors or maladaptive thought processes is not easy but CAN be done if you want bad enough.

  • You are not perfect. That is the wonderful nature of being human. It is ok.

  • Grow from mistakes made don’t hide from them.

  • Let go of negative thoughts, people, or drama that is not yours to change.

  • Forgive yourself!


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