The hard work of guilt and shame…


When you are studying for an undergraduate degree in psychology, you explore emotions in depth. Guilt and shame are two I remember most prominently from my undergraduate days, having written an assignment on them. These emotions come up time and again in treatment sessions. Like all emotions, you will have experienced them at one time or another. However, the key reason why it is important for us to pay attention to them, is because of how detrimental they are to mental well-being. 

There is a distinction to be made however between guilt and shame. I give full credit to Brené Brown’s work here. She articulates it perfectly when she states simply that guilt is largely what we feel when we reflect and think “I did a bad thing”, while shame is what we feel when we reflect and think “I am bad”. 

I hear lots of people talking about the frequent guilt they feel in their day to day lives. 

Guilt about our parenting… 

Guilt about our work…

Guilt about the state of our relationships…

Guilt about our wider family and friends…

Guilt about our previous decisions…

Guilt about the amount of guilt we feel…

The list is potentially endless!

However, the good news story about guilt, is that it can help us to change how we respond when we face a similar situation which made us feel guilty last time. It is adaptive and can mobilise a positive shift. Guilt, or “I did a bad thing”, focusses on behaviour rather than who we are as a person. This gives us control to modify what we do in the future.

Shame on the other hand, is quite different. Left unchecked, it can be insidious. It is an emotion that chips away internally at our self-esteem, confidence and feelings of worth.  Imagine the worst things you believe about yourself and that being exposed to others. How would that feel? Shame, or “I am bad”, is underpinned with what we psychologists call a negative core belief. Usually, these negative core beliefs develop, as a consequence of our experiences and life events. 

Sometimes, people mistakenly identify that they feel guilty about something that has occurred, or indeed is occurring, in their lives. When you explore this further, at the core of what they are feeling is actually shame. When you unpick it, usually you find negative core beliefs. Examples of core beliefs might include…

 “I am unlovable”, 

“I don’t deserve good things”

“I am not worthy”  

The value in therapy is being able to accurately identify whether what you feel is guilt or shame and crucially what to do about it. If guilt is adaptive, it makes sense for you to pay attention to it and modify your behaviour next time. 

If shame is as harmful as researchers and clinicians believe, being able to acknowledge it, where it originated and then work to ultimately let it go is powerful. I believe strongly that verbalising the shame we feel dissipates it toxicity. 

Doing this work, challenging as it is, gives you back the control to move confidently into a future where you intentionally chose what to believe about yourself. If you don’t have your own back, who else will? If you can model your self-worth to others, they can’t help but reflect that self-worth right back at you. Surely that’s worth the hard work. 

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