Guilt and Shame. What’s the Difference?

Written by: Ankita Kathad –MA  (Clinical Psychology)

Last updated date : August 28, 2022

Guilt, shame, and regret are all powerful emotions. Many times people mix them up. They are related yet different terms. Both are used in different contexts. Most of us have felt both emotions. In this article, we understand the difference between guilt and shame. We understand what it is to be regretful.

Guilt, shame, and regret are all powerful emotions. Many times people mix them up. They are related yet different terms. Both are used in different contexts. Most of us have felt both emotions. In this article, we understand the difference between guilt and shame. We understand what it is to be regretful.

Chapter 1:
Difference between Guilt and Shame

People use these terms interchangeably because they are quite related. However, in psychology, both the terms refer to different experiences which is why it is important to understand the difference. People can feel both, guilt and shame at the same time for the same situation.

  • Guilt is an emotion that occurs when you feel that you have made a mistake or hurt someone. It is your own acceptance of doing something wrong. We feel remorse when we are guilty.
  • Shame on the other hand is related to one’s own self-perception. When we feel that we are bad or unworthy. Shame is more related to self whereas guilt is related to others. We feel shame when we think we have done something ridiculous, dishonorable, or embarrassing.

There is a very thin line between the two emotions. In guilt, we feel bad for others, in shame, we feel bad for ourselves. A simple example can help in understanding the difference better. For instance, Samuel deliberately didn’t help his friend clear a concept during an exam. This was because he was jealous of the friend. When the friend fails the exam, Samuel feels remorse for not having helped. He also feels ashamed of the person he had acted like. The remorse is termed as guilt whereas the perception of one’s own self is Shame.

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Chapter 2:
Why Do We Experience Guilt and Shame?

Guilt and shame are both very heavily loaded emotions. While shame mostly happens due to the presence of others, guilt can be a private affair. We mostly experience shame as a result of doing something ridiculous or embarrassing in the eyes of others. However, the load of our deeds can make us feel guilty even when there is no one looking.

Why does guilt occur in the first place? We experience guilt due to our human nature of being social and altruistic. As humans, we need to cooperate with each other to live in harmony. Therefore a general tendency is to do anything that keeps the bond connected. Guilt or remorse protects us from destroying this social harmony. We know that there are limited resources on earth. Additionally, we know that all of us are born with different privileges. If we don’t feel guilty for doing anything wrong, then we would go on doing bad things without any thought. Guilt prevents us from hurting anyone in the future. Guilt prevents us from acting mean.

Shame arises from our personal experiences and the things we see around us. We were not born with shame. As we grew, we started noticing people’s reactions. For instance, when a child wets his bed, people around him might react in a way that’s embarrassing. This generates a feeling of shame in the child. Shame arises as a part of self-perception in life. It is a mixture of parenting and environmental as well as cultural factors. Depending on how much criticism or praise you received for your actions in childhood, shame can vary for people. 

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Chapter 3:
How Can Shame Affect Us?

An intense feeling of shame can damage our self-worth. When we keep feeling bad about our personality, it can lead to low self-confidence. Intense shame leads to hesitancy. People may be scared to try new things out of fear of embarrassment. Moreover, shame can lead to self-criticism and a constant need to be perfect. People who feel more ashamed may put up fake self-images if they are shameful of their own image.

Shame can also lead to a behavior where people submit to other people’s wishes. Often people who blame themselves think that they will end up doing something wrong. To save themselves from the embarrassment they become submissive. For example, at school, children who had experienced shame previously may hesitate to give ideas. They think they will make a fool of themselves

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Chapter 4:
What Is Regret?

Regret is also a negative emotion. It is a feeling that you get when the other alternative that you didn’t choose turns out to be better. Or at least you think that it is better. Regret is linked with shame and guilt. It is our perception that if our past actions were to be changed, it could lead to a better outcome. So considering our earlier example of Samuel, let’s say that he can have regrets if he thinks that he would have helped his friend, his friend would have scored well.

Regret is also sometimes a result of self-blame. In some cases, the other alternative is not even possible. However, we still feel regretful. There are many reasons why we may feel regretful. We could have regrets for not choosing a particular dress we liked at a store. We could feel regretful for yelling at our friend when we could have stayed calm. Regret is tied to the actions in the past. This is why it’s very difficult to change them. The only way to get over these emotions is by repenting or moving on. Additionally, since we cannot change the past, we feel a loss of control. This is why regret makes us very uncomfortable.

Regret can be a long-lasting feeling and people often have regrets from their past for a very long time. They can feel regretful for doing something in their youth. A big difference between guilt and regret is that guilt often rises from hurting someone else. Regret can rise from hurting someone else but it can also rise from making a wrong choice for oneself. For instance, you can feel guilty when you don’t help your friend. However, you can feel regretful for not taking the alternate option for yourself. 

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Chapter 5:
How Does Regret Affect us?

Feeling regretful can be helpful sometimes because it helps us improve our future decisions. Regret can help us in better decision-making and problem-solving. It can make us more sensitive to others’ emotions. It can be a factor that helps people correct their mistakes. When people repent after feeling regretful, they engage in taking actions that can provide relief to the party who has faced damage.

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Chapter 6:
Shame, Guilt, and Regret.

While all these emotions are closely tied together, there are subtle differences that exist. They all have the potential to affect our mental health. For instance, intense guilt can lead to a lot of self-blame. We may end up feeling too bad about ourselves. We can doubt our decisions in the future. Similarly, shame can have damaging effects on our self-worth. Regret can lead to feelings of sadness because we think that the other option was more attractive. Regret has the potential to make one feel guilty and ashamed at the same time.

Sometimes, all three combined or in individual capacity can lead to conditions like anxiety or depression. You can feel anxious if you have been embarrassed in the past. If you have long-term regrets, it can lead to sadness and depression. Therefore it is important to see an expert if any of these emotions impede your life satisfaction. These feelings can lead to feeling stuck. They can affect your happiness. The best way to move on is to move past these emotions. When you feel stuck, it is important to talk to a therapist who can help you work on these emotions.

Additionally, these emotions can affect your self-worth. It can lead to a lack of confidence and low self-esteem. Epsychonline offers self-help courses to work on Low self-esteem. These courses are curated by experts and help you regain confidence in yourselves. There are many articles that help you overcome difficult emotions. Do check them out.