Every one of us – at least those of us who are not psychopaths – has experienced guilt and shame at some point in our lives. Many people experience them on a daily basis. Sometimes we think of guilt and shame as being one and the same, but they’re really not. They serve two very different purposes. Guilt can actually be useful and constructive, guiding our behavior and ensuring that society does not devolve into chaos; but shame can be quite destructive, and can manifest as countless forms of psychological distress.
Guilt and shame may feel physiologically similar, but the cognitions we associate with them are qualitatively different. When we feel guilty, we are thinking, “I did a bad thing.” When we feel shame, we are thinking, “I am a bad thing.” Guilt says, “I know I did something I shouldn’t have done, something that was hurtful to others or to myself.” Shame says, “There is something about me that is so fundamentally terrible and unacceptable that I need to keep myself hidden, or to compensate for it in a major way.”
If you do a bad thing – if you make a mistake – you can apologize and take steps to ensure that you don’t do it again; you can learn from the experience and do it differently next time. If you are a bad thing – if you are a mistake – well, what’s to be done? You’ll just have to make sure no one finds out how awful you truly are, you’ll have to work very hard to distract them from your essential horribleness, and you’ll have to act in self-destructive ways since you don’t really deserve to love and be loved.
Let’s say you ask your boss for a raise, and you’re denied. You go home and act snippy with your spouse, or your kids, or your dog – you take out your frustration on someone who has nothing to do with what made you upset. Later, you feel guilty about it. You can say you’re sorry, and you can acknowledge the fact that you displaced your anger onto someone who didn’t deserve it. You can resolve to increase your self-awareness to minimize the chances of doing it again in the future.
Or let’s say you’ve resolved to stop drinking, and so far you’ve been successful. Then you have dinner with an old drinking companion who’s in town on business, and you end up having four cocktails. You feel guilty. You can spend some extra time on the treadmill at the gym the next day, and you can insist that your friend meet you at an alcohol-free restaurant the next time s/he comes to town, and you can seek professional help for your addiction.
But if you act snippy with your spouse or fall off the wagon and you tell yourself that you’re a worthless loser who always ruins everything, you’ll just spiral into depression, or start having panic attacks, or develop insomnia, or become a workaholic to prove to everyone that you’re not a worthless loser who always ruins everything. And if you’re gay, or not Caucasian, or short, or tall, or obese, or transgender, or hairless, or Albino, or disabled, or anything other than some non-existent Norman Rockwell stereotype of what a human being is supposed to be, and you tell yourself that you don’t deserve love and respect, you will sabotage yourself in any number of ways.
Guilt can move us forward by motivating us to do better. Shame is dead weight, and it only holds us back.