Understanding The Difference Between Guilt And Shame

This post was developed via a partnership with BetterHelp.

If you’ve ever done or said something that you later felt bad about, then you’re likely already familiar with the feeling of guilt. Likewise, if you’ve ever behaved in a way that made you want to hide and distance yourself from others, you’ve probably experienced the heavy burden of shame. Both of these feelings can go hand in hand, and while they do have similarities, they ultimately are not the same. Here, we’ll go over the definitions of guilt and shame, discuss how they differ, and provide tips for overcoming them. 

What Is Guilt?

Guilt refers to a type of self-consciousness that occurs when someone feels that they’ve done something wrong—whether their feelings are based on fact or perception. This can be a highly motivating feeling, leading people to make changes in their lives that are more aligned with their values. 

What Is Shame?

Shame is a feeling characterized by embarrassment, humiliation, and pain. People often feel it when they regret something they’ve done, but it can also be experienced as a result of someone else’s behavior. In some cases, it may not even be tied to something specific. Shame causes people to judge themselves harshly, causing them to feel self-directed anger or disgust, or believing that something is wrong with them. 

The Difference Between Guilt & Shame

While guilt and shame are similar, they differ in their message and impact. For example, guilty feelings may cause a person to think, “I did something wrong,” while shame can create thoughts like, “There’s something wrong with me.” 

When someone feels guilty, it can inspire them to do something different in the future so that they don’t repeat their mistakes. However, shame can cause people to close in on themselves, leading to feelings of unworthiness, inadequacy, and even depression or anxiety. Thus, shame often has a much more detrimental effect on a person’s well-being and self-esteem. 

If you’re having trouble figuring out whether you’re experiencing guilt or shame, connecting with a therapist could be beneficial. BetterHelp offers online therapy for a range of concerns, allowing you to get answers and support from the privacy of your home. 

Overcoming Guilt & Shame

Guilt and shame can be significant burdens in an individual’s life, making it crucial to know how to overcome them. However, these feelings are typically approached in different ways. When someone is feeling guilty, they can often alleviate these emotions by taking responsibility for their words or actions, apologizing, and choosing healthier behaviors in the future. Talking to a trusted friend, family member, or even a therapist can also be helpful.  

Shame can be more difficult to overcome, as it involves practicing self-acceptance and showing compassion for one’s mistakes. Some people can struggle with this, especially if they’ve been talking negatively to themselves for years. By recognizing that no one is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes, individuals feeling ashamed can begin to develop more positive self-talk and adopt a more compassionate perception of themselves. Therapy can be helpful for those who are struggling with this process, as a therapist can lead the individual toward the root of their shame and equip them with tools for overcoming it.  


While guilt can be a motivating feeling, shame may lead to a type of emotional paralysis in which a person feels stuck in defeating thoughts and feelings. In general, guilt is helpful, but shame tends to be harmful. Recognizing the difference between these two feelings can be crucial, as overcoming them usually involves different steps. Emotions like guilt and shame play a vital role in helping us maintain a sense of belonging and acceptance with other people, but when taken to extremes, they can do more damage than good. By understanding the purpose of these two emotions and knowing how to overcome them, individuals can harness their power to improve themselves and lead happier lives. 

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