Shame and Guilt: Which One is Helpful, and How Can We Effectively Manage These Difficult Emotions?

What are shame and guilt?

In the fascinating and comprehensive book ‘Shame and Guilt’ by June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, they describe shame and guilt as universal human emotions that are functionally important at both an individual and a relationship level.

Features shared by shame and guilt (Tangney & Dearing, 2002):

Shame and guilt are both very private and personal emotions, in that they are predominantly internal experiences that are more difficult to observe or measure than a lot of the other universal emotions, such as anger, sadness or joy.

Yet they are also social emotions, in that our experience of these emotions develops during some of our earliest interpersonal experiences with our family and those closest to us.

Both shame and guilt can be classed as “moral” emotions, in that our experience of them can hopefully propel us to act in a more moral way.

They are both closely linked with how we see ourselves in relation to others, and they continue to profoundly influence our behaviour in interpersonal situations throughout our lives, especially in contexts involving perceived transgressions, mistakes or moral failures.

Shame and guilt both involve becoming self-conscious following a personal transgression, and evaluating our behaviour in reference to our perceived self, familial and societal norms. Based on this evaluation and what we internally attribute the transgression to, we then render judgment of our behaviour and potentially internal sanctions towards ourselves if we deem the behaviour to be morally or socially unacceptable.

Although Philosophers and Psychoanalysts have been theorising about shame and guilt for over a century, it is only really since the late 1980s that Psychologists have begun to systematically research and examine the nature of shame and guilt and the implications that these emotions and experiences have. As well as being difficult to directly observe, many people tend not to have a clear understanding of the differences between shame and guilt.

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Features where shame and guilt differ (Tangney & Dearing, 2002):
  1. Focus of evaluation
    • With shame, the focus of evaluation is on the global self (e.g., “I am horrible!“)
    • With guilt, the focus of evaluation is on the specific behaviour (e.g., “What I did was horrible!“)
  2. Degree of distress
    • With shame, the degree of distress is generally much higher than it is with guilt, with greater pain being experienced
    • With guilt, the degree of distress is generally much lower than it is with shame, with less pain being experienced
  3. Phenomenological experience
    • With shame, people tend to shrink and feel worthless, powerless and small
    • With guilt, people tend to feel tense, remorseful, and regretful
  4. Operation of “self”
    • With shame, the self becomes split into an “observing self” and an “observed self”
    • With guilt, a unified self remains intact
  5. Impact on “self”
    • With shame, the self becomes impaired by a global devaluation (because of the focus of evaluation on the global self)
    • With guilt, the self is unimpaired by a global devaluation (because the focus of evaluation is on the specific behaviour)
  6. Concern vis-a-vis the “other”
    • With shame, one becomes concerned with an internalised others’ evaluation of the self
    • With guilt, one becomes concerned with the effect that their specific behaviour has had on others
  7. Counterfactual processes
    • With shame, one tries to mentally undo the undesirable aspects of the self that have become apparent through denial, defensiveness, blaming others or aggression
    • With guilt, one tries to mentally undo the undesirable aspects of their behaviour through being moral, caring, socially responsible and constructive
  8. Motivational features
    • With shame, the desire is to hide, escape, or strike back
    • With guilt, the desire is to confess, apologize, or repair

 

How to measure Shame and Guilt

Before I explain the research findings on shame and guilt in further detail, I challenge you to take the TOSCA (Test of Self-Conscious Affect) – Version 3 to determine if you are more prone to shame, guilt or blaming others across various work and social situations.

When I took it, it was interesting to see that my results were:

I seldom blame others

I use guilt self-talk an average amount

and

I use shame self-talk an average amount

It was nice to see that I do not blame others when I realise that I have made a mistake, and that I am often accountable and responsible for my actions. However, it does seem that I tend to punish myself too much following a transgression, especially when it comes to killing a small animal whilst driving or having a dog run away when I was supposed to be looking after it whilst my friend was on vacation. But what do these findings mean for real life?

The TOSCA has been used widely in studies on shame and guilt since 1989, and makes the distinction between guilt as a more adaptive response to a situation where the focus is on the desire to repair or right the specific wrong that has been caused, and shame as a less adaptive response where the focus is on a global negative self-evaluation without any reparation generally being taken.

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Research Findings on Shame and Guilt

Research findings using the TOSCA have found that “Shame and guilt have important and quite different implications for interpersonal relationships.” Based on their 12 years of research, Tangney and Dearing (2002) have found that:

Individuals who are prone to shame:

  • Are more likely to shift the blame to others for negative events through shaming others, bullying and violence.
  • Are more likely to experience bitterness, resentment and a seething kind of anger and hostility towards others and the world. They are also inclined to express their anger in aggressive and non-constructive ways, particularly in close interpersonal relationships. The shame-anger dynamic may help explain what occurs in many domestic violence incidents.
  • Are less likely to be empathetic, as the global self-focus of shame impedes sensitivity and impairs the connection with others.
  • Are more likely to be vulnerable to a range of psychological difficulties through internalising the shame, including depression, low self-worth, self-loathing, eating disorders, and addiction.
  • Are more likely to be suspended from high school, use illicit drugs, engage in unsafe sex practices, abuse their spouses and attempt suicide (when individuals were first assessed in fifth-grade and then followed up on years later).

Individuals who are prone to guilt:

  • Are more likely to understand, empathize and connect with others.
  • Are more likely to accept responsibility for their transgressions.
  • Are less likely to be angry, hostile and aggressive. When they do experience anger, they are more likely to express what they feel in a direct, assertive and constructive way.
  • Are less likely to experience psychopathology, as long as the guilt is “shame-free”.
  • Are more likely to apply to college, engage in community service, begin drinking alcohol at a later age, and use birth control (when individuals were first assessed in fifth-grade and then followed up on years later). They were also less likely to try heroin, drive whilst intoxicated, and be arrested or convicted of a crime.

Is guilt always a helpful emotion?

No. Two maladaptive forms of guilt (Kim, Thibodeau & Jorgensen, 2011) have since been found to be correlated with depressive symptoms to a similar degree to what shame is. These are contextual- maladaptive guilt, which involves an “exaggerated responsibility for uncontrollable events”, and generalized guilt, which involves a “free-floating guilt that is unrelated to any specific context” (Kim, Thibodeau & Jorgensen, 2011). This excessive or inappropriate guilt would not be helpful to experience on a regular basis.

 

What Can We Do?

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A. Manage guilt effectively

With guilt, the steps for dealing with the emotion are pretty straightforward:

  1. Has a transgression occurred where you have not lived up to your own (or an internalised other’s) moral standards?
  2. Can you make up for this transgression in any way?
    • By taking responsibility for your action?
    • By fixing the mistake or cleaning up the mess?
    • By genuinely apologising and showing remorse for your actions?
    • By understanding and empathising with the person if they have been hurt?
  3. How can you learn from the mistake so that you are less likely to repeat the same transgression again in the future?
  4. What plan can you put into place so that you are less likely to repeat the same transgression again in the future?

If you are feeling guilty for having a certain thought, please try to understand that we cannot control what thoughts will pop into our consciousness. What we can control is how we interpret or respond to the thoughts that do arise. Considering that we have at least 10,000 thoughts a day, it is very unlikely that all of these thoughts are going to be positive, happy, kind, pro-social thoughts.

If it is just a thought, no transgression has occurred, and there is no need to feel guilty, no matter how antisocial, nasty, blasphemous or taboo these thoughts may seem. We can never be charged in a court of law for impure thoughts, and we do not need to put ourselves on trial either. Even psychologically healthy people have seemingly weird or unsettling thoughts, as evidenced by this list of normal intrusive thoughts (Purdon & Clark, 1992). It is our actions that define our character and how we are seen by others, not our thoughts, so the above steps only need to be worked through when our actions do not live up to the person that we would like to be.

Once these steps have been worked through, there is no additional benefits that can be achieved by continuing to feel guilty, punishing yourself for your transgression, or not forgiving yourself for your actions. Everyone makes mistakes. What is important is that we utilise guilt as an indicator that we have not been living consistently with our most important values, and then practice these steps so that we can do something about it and have a plan to get back on track.

If you continue to feel guilty after this, try to accept how you are feeling and make room for the emotional experience. Then try to change your focus to whatever is most important to you in the present moment. This could be the sport or computer game that you are playing, or connecting with others if you are out socialising. By asking yourself “What’s Most Important Right Now?” it becomes a lot easier to get out of a cycle of ruminating about what you have done and feeling guilty for it.

B. Encourage parents, teachers, bosses, managers, coaches and mentors to help others to learn from their behavioural mistakes so that they can improve and maintain a positive sense of self, rather than criticising who they are or shaming them for doing something wrong

We must educate people in these roles about the differences between shame and guilt, and let them know that even if using shame seems to be effective in changing behaviour in the short-term, it can have devastating long-term consequences, both in terms of their relationship, and the mental health and behaviour of the person who has been shamed.

Shaming children is especially dangerous, and tends to show them that their love, worth and approval is conditional. As a result of being shamed, children will eventually give up, become rebellious, try to be perfect, or subjugate their own needs and try to please others in order to maintain their fragile sense of being loveable, good enough or worthy.

Once people become knowledgeable about focusing on the specific behaviour rather than the person as a whole, it can enhance their sensitivity and effectiveness in all relationships.

C. Develop a Growth Mindset

I have previously spoken about mindsets, as researched by Carol Dweck, in my accountability post. One thing I really noticed when researching the difference between shame and guilt is the similarities between shame and a fixed mindset, and guilt and a growth mindset. Watch the quick 3 minute video below on mindsets to see if you can see the similarities:

Both guilt and a growth mindset are focused on improving following setbacks, rather than remaining stuck, giving up or blaming someone else for your shortcomings. Research indicates that a growth mindset can be cultivated over time. The similarities between guilt and a growth mindset suggests that it is also possible to change from being more shame-prone to being more guilt-prone. As you become more guilt-prone, you will begin to learn from your experiences and continue to grow without being held back by the transgressions that you have made in the past.

D.  Embrace your imperfections, allow yourself to be vulnerable, and share your feelings of shame with those that have earned the right to hear your story

In “The Gifts of Imperfection’, Brene Brown defines shame as the following:

“shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

Brene has found that shame needs the three ingredients of secrecy, silence and judgment in order for it to grow and spiral out of control in our lives. She also believes that we all experience shame to some degree, and that even though we are afraid to talk about what we are ashamed of, it is actually by talking about our shame that we are least likely to be controlled by it.

“If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way – especially shame, fear and vulnerability” — Brene Brown

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How to become more Shame Resilient (Brown, 2010):

  1. Understand shame.
  2. Recognise what triggers shame for you, both externally (e.g., other people’s critical messages) and internally (e.g., your own unrealistic expectations).
  3. Check to see if these criticisms or expectations are realistic or accurate.
  4. Realise that being imperfect does not mean the same as being inadequate or unworthy of love.
  5. Reach out to people who have earned the right to hear your shame experiences.
  6. Talk about what makes you feel ashamed and whatever else you may be feeling about the experience.
  7. Ask for the type of support that you need from them. This could be some kind words or reassurance. It could be something that they can do for you (even if it is just be present and listen). It could be some hand holding, back rubbing, or a hug. Or it could be some quality time, something to cheer you up, or a fun outing to help you to change focus and move on.

Once our previously shameful experiences are out in the open, we begin to own our story and realise that we are loveable and worthy, just the way we are. Although it is easier to experience this if our closest relationships provide us with unconditional acceptance, love and belonging, we really only need one person that we can open to in order for shame to reduce and improve. If there is no one in your life that you would feel comfortable talking to about your shame, then a Psychologist that you feel safe with can definitely help.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

10 thoughts on “Shame and Guilt: Which One is Helpful, and How Can We Effectively Manage These Difficult Emotions?

  1. Thank you! I really enjoyed reading this. I got sober because of guilt and shame but that was three years ago and now I think it’s about time I worked on those things in order to let them go. So thank you for this amazing resource list! And I LOVED the Growth Mindset video.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve found it useful to remind clients that as empathic beings, we can also feel guilt for the wrongdoing of others. That guilt can be, “I feel bad that something happened to you and you feel bad.” Or, “I feel bad that you did something bad and you don’t have any guilt!” It’s especially helpful for those that grew up with an addicted parent. They’ve been so trained to take on the guilt that doesn’t belong to them, that they have to retrain themselves to evaluate their culpability.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. YES Absolutley! You said:
    “Shaming children is especially dangerous, and tends to show them that their love, worth and approval is conditional. As a result of being shamed, children will eventually give up, become rebellious, try to be perfect, or subjugate their own needs and try to please others in order to maintain their fragile sense of being loveable, good enough or worthy.”

    I really cannot emphasize enough the healing power of unconditonal love. If you haven’t found yet find it or give that gift to yourself.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is so great.

    I have heard Brene Brown talk about empathy as the antidote, or opposite, to shame. I was wondering if you feel that there is an antidote to guilt as well?

    Thanks for this post, it was so helpful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think guilt is more useful than shame, but the antidote is a bit more complicated. If it is about something you have done that is inconsistent with your values, then pledging to not do it again going forward is the most helpful step. It is then about making amends if you have hurt someone, understanding that we all make mistakes, and trying to be compassionate towards yourself, knowing that this is better than self-contempt and criticism as long as you are trying to learn from the past and not repeat the same error in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely! I find this all very interesting. Also wondering, in the case that you made a mistake and then have changed your behavior going forward – is there still the same weight held in making amends or “righting your wrong” if the conversation itself might hurt the other person more? (feel free to let me know if this question makes no sense at all ;P )

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s a tough moral question that there isn’t a clear answer for. Most people say that they’d want to know if someone cheated on them for example, but a lot of people who do cheat don’t say anything for not wanting to hurt the other. I think it depends on personal values, but if you’d want someone to come clean or apologise to you even though it would be hard, then it’s probably better to make amends too.

        Liked by 1 person

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