The Roles of Shame and Guilt in Anxiety

Psychology researchers have become increasingly interested in the idea that people who are more prone to feelings of shame and guilt are at higher risk for mental health conditions like anxiety disorders. The emotion of shame in particular is now being viewed as a possible culprit that needs to be explored in treating these conditions.

Shame and guilt are related to each other, but they’re also distinct emotions. Essentially, guilt involves feeling bad about something you’ve done. Shame cuts deeper – it’s about feeling bad about who you are as a person. For some examples of what sets these feelings apart, see this post from a couple years ago about differences between shame and guilt.

At this point, quite a few studies have been done on how shame and guilt relate to anxiety disorders. So a group of researchers in Romania decided to conduct a meta-analysis of these studies, looking at what broad conclusions we can draw from them.

The first takeaway the researchers found is that shame seems to be more closely related to anxiety disorders than guilt. This result fits with the idea that shame is more toxic than guilt because it implicates how you see yourself as a person, not just how you feel about a particular action you committed.

In published studies, there was some evidence of a link between guilt and anxiety disorders too. That said, the relationship between guilt and anxiety disorders largely seemed to come from the natural overlap between shame and guilt. In other words, being prone to feelings of guilt doesn’t necessarily put people at higher risk for anxiety unless those feelings of guilt also lead to feelings of shame.

That said, the researchers did find evidence that two specific kinds of guilt were more problematic. These were a tendency toward feelings of guilt more extreme than a particular situation warranted, and an experience of “free-floating guilt” not tied to any specific situation.

Like guilt, shame can be separated into different subtypes. The meta-analysis revealed that external shame rather than internal shame was more closely linked with social anxiety disorder in particular. That is, the kind of shame that correlated with social anxiety disorder involved people’s perceptions of how they were seen by others rather than how they tended to perceive themselves.

Overall, these findings confirm that the emotions of shame, and to some extent guilt, seem to have a direct relationship with risk for anxiety disorders. Hopefully, the fact that specific flavors of shame and guilt are especially closely linked with anxiety disorders will be useful in improving interventions used by people with these conditions, such as psychotherapy.