A Perspective of Guilt and Shame.

Generally, people have a strong desire to remain affiliated with others. This stems from our evolution of depending on others for our physical and emotional needs. Belonging to a group increases the likelihood of our survival; therefore, we often comport ourselves in ways that will increase our value and acceptance to other individuals. A means of maintaining attachments is to have other people possess positive feelings and beliefs regarding us. However, to do so effectively, we also need to hold such positive emotions and thoughts about ourselves. 

Guilt and shame are two emotions that can impact on our favor with other people as well as on our own self-concept. These are powerful emotions that can be experienced when an individual has committed an unacceptable act. For those who have such reactions, pro-social behavior is often promoted.

Although there is no clear consensus on what constitutes these two emotions, some researchers have articulated similarities between them as well as features that differentiate them.

Similarities found in guilt and shame include:

  • Stem from failures or misdeeds
  • Require social connectedness; can either hinder or promote positive interpersonal relationships (Tagney, Wagner, Hill-Barlow, Marschall, and Gramzow, 1996)
  • Require self-reflection; acceptance that one can be flawed; acceptance of responsibility for a wrongdoing (Tignor and Colvin, 2017)

Differences between guilt and shame include:

  • Guilt arises from doing “a bad thing;” whereas shame impacts one’s self-perception; i.e., “I am a bad person” (Tignor and Colvin, 2017)
  • Guilt derives from a belief that one has performed a physical or emotional harm on another (Strelan, 2007); whereas shame is a negative reaction derived from others knowing that the individual did something wrong (Tagney et al., 1996)
  • Shame maybe a more impactful emotion than guilt because it affects one’s identity; whereas guilt affects one’s behavior (Lewis, 1971; Tagney et al., 1996)

Feelings of guilt are a prompt for behavioral responses to make amends; such as, asking for forgiveness, being empathic, and engaging in reparative actions to reinforce social connectedness (Tagney et al., 1996).

Shame is associated with an individual’s sense of self in a non-favorable way. If one’s identity is important to them, the experience of shame can be more distressing and painful than feelings of guilt. For some, shame can lead to depression and social dysfunction.

It has been proposed that there are two important factors that relate to how guilt and shame can be positively addressed. If an individual believes that one’s “self” is malleable, the person is more likely to engage in reparative behaviors; such as, taking responsibility for committing a harm and being motivated to change in a positive way. Moreover, by receiving acceptance, understanding, and compassion from others, the individual can now accept their own failures and be self-compassionate. However, if one believes that repair is unattainable or even difficult, engaging in reparative behavior is unlikely, resulting in the person remaining socially avoidant, distressed, defensive, and feeling stigmatized (Cibich, Woodyatt, and Wenzel, 2016).

Researchers have found that early shame experiences and a lack of feeling safe and loved as a child can be traumatic and affect one’s identity and relationships. These experiences may carry over into adulthood generating symptoms of depression. Moreover, these individuals may not only view their own sense of self as being inferior, worthless or flawed, they may believe that others also see them that way (Matos, Pinto-Gouveia, and Duarte, 2013).

When shame causes serious emotional difficulties, for those with or without early traumatic shame experiences, treatment should be considered. In addition to treating depression, Cibich et al. suggest the following interventions for the individual

  • Being in a supportive treatment relationship
  • Encouraging the belief that one’s self-identity can be changed
  • Developing characteristics and abilities that promote treating oneself with kindness, warmth, and compassion
  • Discouraging avoidance by encouraging the individual to not only approach those who were affected by the “shameful” act, but also not to avoid one’s own painful feelings of shame
  • Encouraging the belief that repair of the wrongdoing may not only make it up to those offended, but may also restore social belonging

It is important to remember that bad behavior does not always equate to a bad person. We all perform misdeeds and can feel bad about doing so. The essential issue is to recognize what we have done, make amends, and learn from our experiences so that we refrain from repeating such harms. Self-forgiveness is a key to moving beyond guilt and shame. In addition, having a sense of who we are and how we wish to be perceived by valued others can help in maintaining pro-social behavior and interpersonal relationships. Guilt and shame serve as emotional, cognitive, and behavioral triggers signaling the need for realignment.

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We all perform misdeeds and can feel bad about it. What we then do and think can affect not only our social relationships, our self-identity, and our overall psychological health.
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Cibich, M., Woodyatt, L., & Wenzel, M. (2016). Moving beyond “shame is bad”: How a functional emotion can become problematic. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10/9, 471–483. DOI: 10.1111/spc3.12263

Lewis, H. B. (1971). Shame and guilt in neurosis. New York: International Universities Press.

Matos, M., Pinto-Gouveia, J., & Duarte, C. (2013). Internalizing early memories of shame and lack of safeness and warmth: The mediating role of shame on depression. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 41(4), 479–493. doi.org/10.1017/S1352465812001099

Strelan, P. (2007). Who forgives others, themselves, and situations? The roles of narcissism, guilt, self-esteem, and agreeableness. Personality and Individual Differences, 42(2), 259-269. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2006.06.017

Tangney, J. P., Wagner, P. E., Hill-Barlow, D., Marschall, D. E., & Gramzow, R. (1996). Relation of shame and guilt to constructive versus destructive responses to anger across the lifespan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(4), 797-809. DOI:10.1037//0022-3514.70.4.797

Tignor, S. M., & Colvin, C. R. (2017). The interpersonal adaptiveness of dispositional guilt and shame: A meta-analytic investigation. Journal of Personality, 85(3), 341-363. DOI:10.1111/jopy.12244

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