Shame and Guilt

Guilt is good for you. Shame is bad for you. Guilt makes you a better person. Shame makes you a scared person. Guilt is good. Shame is bad. Period. Allow me to explain. I intend to describe these two very important experiences, which are quite different but are often conflated together.

Guilt and shame “feelings”. Readers of this blog may have seen my previous blogs on Feelings in which I have noted that all feelings are a central ingredient of human existence and even more central in human relationships. That having been said we must also note that while feelings are central to life, feelings are undefinable. We can understand them, talk about them, and attempt to communicate them, but we can never define them. Feelings are just too important to be simply defined, just like the three elements of the universe, time, distance, and mass, which are undefined.  Allow me to review a couple things we have noted in previous Feelings blogs. We discussed emotions as a part of feelings:

Emotions

There are four basic emotions, all of which have to do with love in some way:

  • Two emotions that have to do with having or losing something that I love:
    • Joy when I have something I love (in the present)
    • Sadness when I lose something that I love (in the present)
  • Two emotions that have to do with losing something that I love:
    • Anger when I have lost something that I love (in the past)
    • Fear when I might lose something that I love (in the future)

Various psychologists have described as many as 50 basic emotions (or feelings as they are sometimes called), but we will not debate this subject here. Important for this discussion is the experience of these four emotions in shame and guilt, our main discussion in this blog.

Shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment are often used interchangeably. We hear people say that we “need to get rid of shame and guilt” as if they were the same thing, or they might say that they are embarrassed when they actually feel shame. So let me parse out these feelings and how they can be harmful…and interestingly…helpful. In all these feelings (guilt, shame, humiliation, and embarrassment) the emotions we feel are not completely expressed. Rather, they are hidden or partially hidden while we go through these feelings.

Guilt, shame, humiliation, and embarrassment

Consider the basic emotions and other matters associated with shame, guilt, humiliation and embarrassment:

  • Basic emotions associated with these four feelings:
    • Guilt: sadness
    • Shame: fear
    • Humiliation: anger
    • Embarrassment: joy
  • The person causing these feelings
    • Guilt: yourself
    • Shame: an imaginary other person
    • Humiliation: a real other person
    • Embarrassment: yourself
  • The element causing these feelings
    • Guilt: activity (something you have said or done)
    • Shame: yourself (you fear that something is wrong with you)
    • Humiliation: yourself (you believe that something is wrong with you)
    • Embarrassment: activity (something you have said or done)
  • The result of these feelings:
    • Guilt: personal improvement
    • Shame: hiding
    • Humiliation: hiding
    • Embarrassment: personal improvement
  • The effects of these feelings:
    • Guilt: ends
    • Shame: continues
    • Humiliation: continues
    • Embarrassment: ends

What is guilt?

Guilt is the feeling of sadness that I have when I have hurt or harmed someone by something I have said or done, or something that I have not said or not done. Note that the key in guilt is the feeling of sadness. I feel sad when I feel genuinely guilty because I have caused some hurt or harm to someone as I look back at my behavior. Simply put I think, “I should have said (or done)” or “I shouldn’t have said (or done)” something. When I feel sadness, I can then correct my mistake, offer an apology, and/or make amends for my misdeeds. The important factor here is that I judge myself. The even more important factor is that I then have the opportunity to improve myself in the future.

So, to the surprise of many people, guilt is good for me…if we understand guilt in the way I have described. Not so with shame.

What is shame?

Shame is essentially the fear of someone else’s disapproval. I feel shame when I think that someone will judge me harshly for something that I have said or done (or again, not said or not done). The key factor in shame is that I imagine that I will be judged, not what I have done. Simply put, I think, “Person A or B might think that I am somehow a bad person or a stupid person for what I have done.” In shame I imagine that I am judged as somehow inadequate, not that I have done something inadequate. As a result of shame, I hide: I hide what I have done from others, and I may hide it from myself.

So, while guilt makes me a better person, shame prevents me from becoming a better person. Shame is bad for me…always. It is always harmful to think there is something wrong with me instead of examining my behavior and seeing that I have actually done something that is wrong. Shame is much like humiliation as noted above.

What is humiliation?

As you can read in the abbreviated the paradigm I have laid out above, shame and humiliation are nearly the same except in shame there is often an imaginary person, whereas in humiliation there is a real person. When I am humiliated, a real person has humiliated me. Humiliating experiences occur when I am unable or unwilling to exercise the anger I feel when someone has assaulted my character. The result of humiliation is just the same as it is with shame: I hide. And when I hide, I do not improve as a person.

Most humiliation occurs in childhood. The most common perpetrators of humiliation are siblings, sometimes with intention to humiliate, sometimes with unintentional humor or teasing that has the same effect: something is wrong with me and I need to hide from everyone. Humiliation occurs with girls in school often in regards to some kind of body image or presentation, and occasionally with “drama” that asserts some girl is somehow inadequate or unacceptable. Humiliation occurs with boys usually from other boys, often with some failure in competition, perhaps academic or athletic.

So, like shame, humiliation is never helpful…never because it always leads to hiding from rather than self-examination and improvement. Furthermore, humiliation can bleed into shame experiences in adulthood because the essence is the same: there is something is wrong with me.

You will note that shame and humiliation are quite similar, the difference being that true shame is the feeling I have about possibly being criticized while humiliation is the feeling that results from by actually being criticized. When some “shames you,” this is actually humiliation because this is a real person who has assaulted you. So when you are shamed (by some real person), you feel humiliation. You hide, just like you do in shame.

What is embarrassment?

It must seem odd that I suggest that the basic emotion in embarrassment is joy. This is because most people equate embarrassment with shame or humiliation. But true embarrassment is a time when you laugh at yourself for some blunder, whether something you said, didn’t say, did wrong, or didn’t do right. So, true embarrassment can occur when you can’t remember the name of your favorite tool or the name of your grandchild. I remember Grandma Ostlund calling out to me with a stream of names like, “Billy, Margaret, Lloyd…I mean Ronny.” We would all laugh as Grandma would have cited my brother, my mother, and my uncle before she finally got around to me. This simple failure to remember a name occurred to me a couple days ago in therapy when I lost track of what I was saying, and then in the same hour when my patient forgot the name of something. In both cases we laughed. I also might laugh at myself) when I choose to have that second piece of pie, but so enjoy the indulgence.

Like guilt, embarrassment is good for me. In both cases I am dealing with something that I love. In guilt I am dealing with having lost something that I value: I did something or said something that brought harm to something or someone I value. In embarrassment I did something or said something that was simply wrong but not very important. But with true embarrassment I can recognize my action, chuckle at it and even be teased about it without feeling shame or humiliation. Whereas guilt is often felt privately, and ultimately leads to personal improvement, embarrassment is often felt publicly, and can also lead to personal improvement. In embarrassment I am humbled but not humiliated.

Aren’t these feelings mixed up?

Yes, they get mixed up. I mentioned that childhood humiliation can bleed into shame; in other words the fact that I have been attacked in character can lead to the feeling of fear that I might be attacked in character.

Furthermore, people use these terms in the ways that they have learned them, so they may say they are “guilty” when they actually feel shame as I have defined it. They may use embarrassment when they feel humiliation. The words for these four feelings are not particularly important, but the concepts are dreadfully important.

We can, indeed, feel two of these feelings at the same time, like humiliation and shame. Importantly, we can also feel guilt, which is good for me, and shame, which is bad for me, at the same time. Unfortunately, if I feel the sadness that is implicit guilt for what I have said or done, but I also am afraid that someone will challenge me, shame will unfortunately override guilt, and I will probably hide.

See if you can distinguish these feelings and the emotions that occur with each of them. You will begin to see the value of guilt and embarrassment and find ways to feel these things more and feel shame and humiliation less.

Further reading

Johnson, R. (2018). Feelings I and Feelings II blogs

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

Narramore, B. (1984). No condemnation: rethinking guilt motivation in counseling, preaching, and parenting. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan

Nathanson, D.L. (1992). Shame and pride: affect, sex, and the birth of the self. New York: Norton

Tangney, P. (2002). Shame and guilt. New York: Guilford

Tournier, P. (1958). Guilt and grace. New York: Harper and Row