Guilt and shame often get lumped together, but there’s an essential difference between the two: guilt is about what you did while shame is about who you are.
Feeling bad about your actions can actually lead to positive change. Feel bad about your fundamental characteristics as a person tends to only make things worse. That’s why shame can be deeply destructive, even though guilt is a healthy emotion in many situations.
This difference between shame and guilt isn’t just theoretical or semantic. Researchers studying these emotions have found that shame and guilt often have opposite effects on people’s behavior. Here are four ways shame and guilt are different:
- Prosocial Behavior: Guilt and shame are both associated with prosocial behavior (behavior that benefits other people), but in different ways. A meta-analysis published in January found that guilt tends to increase prosocial behavior whereas shame tends to decrease it.
- Empathy: A 2015 study found that people who are more guilt-prone are also better at identifying people’s emotions from their facial expressions. The same isn’t true for people who are more shame-prone. The authors interpreted this result as suggesting that guilt, but not shame, is linked to empathy.
- Risky and Illegal Behaviors: How guilt-prone and shame-prone children are predicts how likely they are to engage in risky and illegal behaviors when they reach young adulthood. Guilt-prone children go on to use illegal drugs less frequently, consume less alcohol, have fewer sexual partners and get in less legal trouble. On the other hand, shame-prone children end up using illegal drugs more frequently and having more unprotected sex.
- Causes: When people violate social norms, whether they tend to feel more shame or guilt depends on how strongly they identify with the group whose norms they violated. If they identify strongly with the group, they’re more likely to feel guilt – that is, to see their actions as the main problem. If they don’t identify with the group, they’re more likely to feel shame – to see themselves as the main problem.
There are many other ways shame and guilt are different, but they all basically come back to the difference between feeling bad about something you’ve done vs. feeling bad about yourself.
Try separating out shame and guilt when you reflect on your own feelings and observe the feelings of others, and you might be surprised at some of the things you see. The two emotions look so similar, but they lead in very different directions.