Shame vs. Guilt, What’s the Difference?

Have you been using the words “shame” and “guilt” interchangeably?  Understanding the difference between shame and guilt can help us unpack powerful emotions about ourselves and the experiences we’ve had.

Firstly, shame moves inward.  It’s an internal felt sense that “I am bad” or “I am defective/unlovable/unworthy.”  Shame means to believe that something about you is wrong.  Research tells us that shame is also linked with a host of other struggles, such as depression, addiction, bullying, and eating disorders1-5.

On the other hand, guilt moves outward.  It’s the feelings of remorse about something that we might have done, something external.  Guilt means to believe that something about what you’ve done is wrong.

Guilt, in a sense, is actually healthy – it means we are able to see our actions from another’s perspective and understanding our impact on others.  Essentially, to feel guilty is to feel empathy for another.  So, although guilt may be uncomfortable, guilt is actually helpful because it can guide us towards the person we want to be.

Dr. Brené Brown is an American research professor and she argues that the point is not to control, push away, or cover shame with unhelpful coping strategies, but to be vulnerable with it – expose it, examine it, invite it in.  Welcoming all parts of ourselves and integrating all our experiences with a whole-heartedness (a welcoming of all aspects, good, bad, and in-between), is one of the keys to mental wellbeing.

If you want to learn a bit more about shame, check out Dr. Brown’s TED talk on listening to shame:


By: Dr. Elizabeth Landau



1 Gruber, D., Hansen, L., Soaper, K., Kivisto, A. J., Gruber, D., Hansen, L., … & Kivisto, A. J. The Role of Shame in General, Intimate, and Sexual Violence Perpetration. Psychology of Shame: New Research, 39-62.
2 Lewis, H. B. (1987). The role of shame in depression over the life span.
3 Wright, F., O’leary, J., & Balkin, J. (1989). Shame, guilt, narcissism, and depression: Correlates and sex differences. Psychoanalytic Psychology6(2), 217.
4 Dearing, R. L., Stuewig, J., & Tangney, J. P. (2005). On the importance of distinguishing shame from guilt: Relations to problematic alcohol and drug use. Addictive behaviors30(7), 1392-1404.
5 Goss, K., & Allan, S. (2009). Shame, pride and eating disorders. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy: An International Journal of Theory & Practice16(4), 303-316.