Guilt and shame are two commonly felt emotions, and they are sometimes mistaken for the same thing, but it’s important to understand the difference between the two. Guilt is what we feel when we’ve done something wrong or done something that doesn’t align with our values. We might say, “I should have…” or “I shouldn’t have…” when we feel guilt. Feeling shame also involves feeling like we have done something wrong, but it goes beyond doing to also assume that we are wrong. Shame is essentially viewing ourselves as being “wrong” or “bad.” Shame often includes secrecy and is amplified by secrecy, such as abuse or alcoholism, or other behaviors that are not acceptable in a specific community or culture. We might also feel shame when we assume that if people knew X about us, they would realize we’re “awful” or “unlovable.” Breaking the silencearound shame by talking to people we trust is really important for lessening its power (Greenberger & Padesky, 2016).
When feeling guilt or shame, it’s important to take account of what we might have actually done wrong. To do this, we need to recognize what we are responsible for and what we are not responsible for. If you notice that you’re feeling guilt and shame a lot, you might not be living according to your life’s principles or you might be over-judgmental or overly critical with yourself. Take stock and evaluate whether or not this guilt or shame is helpful (Greenberger & Padesky, 2016).
Think about how others perceive the experience and why. (Maybe they don’t consider it to be as serious as you, for example.) Imagine that your best friend had this experience instead of you—would this change your perspective? How important will this be in one month, a year, or five years? Would your perspective change on the event if someone did it to you? Think about what knowledge and resources you had available to you at the time of the event. Did the event cause damage or harm? If so, is there room for repair or correction? How long will it take? These questions help us to rate the seriousness of the event (Greenberger & Padesky, 2016).
Once we’ve evaluated the seriousness of the situation, we can think about how much personal responsibility needs to be taken. Exploring this with a therapist can be helpful, too. For example, maybe after talking it through with your therapist, you realize that something you’ve been feeling shame or guilt about was actually not your responsibility. On the other hand, sometimes it is healthy and necessary to feel guilty about our actions. If this is the case, think about how you can make amends or work towards repair in some way. This can be healing for both you and the person you’ve wronged. Remember that whether or not someone accepts your apology is out of your control—it’s the offering of your genuine apology and willingness to make amends and act according to your values that can help you feel better (Greenberger & Padesky, 2016).
Finally, offer forgiveness for yourself. Being human includes making mistakes, and self- forgiveness is a way of accepting our own imperfection. (This doesn’t mean downplaying or denying harm.) Many people have a hard time with self-forgiveness, especially for those of us with harsh inner critics. Self-forgiveness, like self-compassion, can be a little easier to find when we practice offering the same kindness and compassion that we would offer to a good friend (Greenberger & Padesky, 2016).
You don’t have to go through this alone. If you’re struggling with guilt or shame, therapy can offer you a safe space to process what happened and how to move forward.
Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. (2016). Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel By Changing The Way You Think (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.