Is it guilt, or is it shame? Why knowing the difference is important.

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guilt vs. shame - Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. Sacramento therapist

Guilt and shame are often used interchangeably. For many people, the words basically mean the same thing: a bad feeling that occurs after they’ve done something wrong. It’s not surprising that most people don’t give a lot of thought to the topic. We don’t want to dwell on bad feelings. We want to get up, dust ourselves off, and move on with our lives.

But guilt and shame are very different feelings. Learning to tell the difference can be helpful. After all, if we try to dust ourselves off without even knowing what happened, we are likely to repeat whatever mistake caused us to fall down in the first place.

Here’s a brief guide to the differences between guilt and shame.


Guilt is the feeling that we have done, thought, or felt something that is not allowed.

  • the anxiety you felt as a child the first time you stole something
  • the nagging sense of doom the first time you cheated on a test or copied someone’s homework
  • the feeling of concern when you’ve spoken harshly to someone you love

All of these are experiences of guilt.

The unconscious anxiety that accompanies guilt is fear of punishment. This fear comes from the part of the psyche that is responsible for helping us control destructive and aggressive impulses – the gut-level morality that is inside each of us.

For many people, guilt is a helpful reminder that our actions have effects on other people. But for some, feelings of guilt spiral out of control and happen in response to normal thoughts and feelings. When this happens, normal expression of anger can bring on overwhelming feeling of guilt. This can end up causing an emotional bottleneck in which important needs aren’t being expressed.

If you notice that you are feeling guilty more often than not, or that you are afraid to express your opinions and feelings because you end up feeling guilty, talking to a therapist can help.


Unlike guilt, which is usually about a single thought, feeling, or action, shame is about who we are as a person. In shame, we unconsciously fear that some part of the self is unacceptable, and that this unacceptability will result in rejection or abandonment.

Our first experiences of shame always involve rejection of an authentic expression of the self: a wish, desire, or feeling that is perfectly innocent but for which we are made to feel unwanted through social disapproval.

The feeling of shame comes from the part of the psyche that holds standards for who we feel we should be. For many people, this part helps define values and goals, and provides a source of healthy self-esteem. But for some, this collection of ‘shoulds’ is unrealistic. They feel like who they naturally are isn’t good enough. This can lead to low self-esteem and chronic feelings of shame and depression.

If you notice that you often feel like you aren’t good enough, or always second-guess your thoughts and feelings because you worry others won’t like you, talking to a therapist can help you learn to let your authentic self shine.

Guilt-Shame Cycles:

Sometimes, guilt and shame can interact with each other to form cycles of behavior that are problematic.

For instance: feeling angry can cause guilt. In order to get rid of the guilt, we shut down the angry feelings. The resulting feelings of being passive can cause shame. The shame leads to anger, and the cycle repeats.

So What?

Feelings of guilt and shame are reactions to underlying feelings. They are signals. In productive communication, we aim to see past the defended stuff and express our most authentic feelings. Guilt is a signal that we feel we have done wrong. Shame is a signal that we feel like we’ve fallen short of a goal, feel rejected, or fear abandonment. By identifying whether we feel guilt or shame, we can learn more about why we are upset. This empowers us to evaluate the situation more accurately, and to better get our needs met.


What is described as depression, and experienced as emptiness…is frequently recognizable as the tragedy of loss of the self.”

– Alice Miller

1 Comment

  1. Dealing with guilt | Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D.
    September 4, 2013

    […] In a previous post discussing the differences between shame and guilt, I defined guilt as the “feeling that we have done, thought, or felt something that is not allowed.” Basically, guilt is what happens when we feel we have done something wrong. In his somewhat provocatively titled book, Your Erroneous Zones, Dr. Wayne Dyer calls guilt a “useless emotion.” He writes, “Guilt means that you use up your present moments being immobilized as a result of past behavior… (pg. 89).” Is it really that simple? Is guilt really a useless emotion? […]


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