Guilt vs. Shame

What are the differences between guilt and shame? And how could it help our clients to have a better understanding of those differences?

We thought it could be useful for you to have a side-by-side comparison of these powerful emotions that you could share with your clients.

Because understanding these differences could help our clients begin to dismantle their negative self-judgments.

Infographic: Here’s a tool you can use to help clients work through self-criticism and shame. Click To Tweet

So we created this infographic. (Please feel free to make a copy to give to your clients.)

Click the image to enlarge

If you’d like to print a copy to share with your clients, just click here: Color or Print-friendly black & white

(When you make copies to share, please be sure to include the copyright information. We put a lot of work into creating these resources for you. Thanks!)

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87 Comments

  1. Gina says:

    Thank you so much for all your wonderful insights and information! You’ve made it simple to understand what holds us back on different levels.

  2. Mary Logan says:

    Wonderful, Ruth, thank you for this. So many times I look to the work you do to provide me quick tips, and to shorten the learning curve on complex issues. This tool does that for me. I will most definitely use this right away!

  3. Brenda Hayes says:

    Useful information. Graphic VERY DIFFICULT to work with. Shrink to fit produces such small print as to be unreadable if you are over 35. Color pops on the computer screen, but uses a lot of ink in printing. User friendly print version would be helpful for sharing.

    Thanks

  4. Franceska says:

    Most useful. Thank you.

  5. Irvin H. Collins MFI, CATC says:

    Let us be careful not to reify our limited conceptual categories with reality and the wide variability of cultural experience. “The map is not the territory.” Shame also serves a fundamentally pro-socializing purpose. Freud hypothesized the super-ego (Uber-Ich) as the psychodynamic principle which enables an individual to assimilate societal influence. In other words, it answers the question, “How does the outside social world become internalized?” Shame operates as a moderating influence on animalistic, aggressive or otherwise manipulative self-serving tendencies. Those of us who work with a forensic population (those diagnosable with anti-social or psychopathic personality traits) deal with this phenomena on a daily basis. Without feeling an overbearing sense of societal pressure, such persons will continue to act “shamelessly”: they are inclined to violate the rights of others and disregard the rules of society with little or no conscience. ‘Remorse’ as well as ‘empathy’ – are not words in their dictionary. Only by stringent impositions from society that their patterns of behavior are
    not only unacceptable but will be sanctioned (i.e., ‘punished’) will they consequently begin to refrain from such proscribed behavior. Shame can therefore be a good thing. Indeed, on a primal level, shame is the force that binds society together and compels random individuals to conform to its laws.

  6. Lauren, NICABM Staff says:

    Hi everyone!

    Thanks to all of you who have taken the time to comment so far; we really appreciate the insights you’re bringing to this discussion!

    I just wanted to let you know we did update our infographic based on some of your feedback, and you’ll now see the updated version is posted above.

  7. Leah Bell says:

    I really like this, but the printer-friendly version doesn’t print the whole document. so, it is cutting off the “How to work with” section and the copyright info.

    • Jinah says:

      If you want to print entire image on a single page, you can change print setting to “shrink to fit”. But the texts would look smaller.

  8. Ron Forbus, LCSW says:

    Your guys rock! You consistently provide timely and relevant information and tools for us be even more successful in facilitating healing in our client’s! Thanks, once again!

  9. I will surely share this work and incorporate it into the work I’m doing.

  10. Robing Schilling says:

    Thank you that is very helpful information and at the right time .

  11. Nice work. I will be sharing this indeed!

  12. Very helpful graphic! Thank you.

  13. Thank you for allowing me to preview this. I differ somewhat in my approach to these issues. I don’t think that there is healthy guilt. I think remorse – genuine remorse – is healthy and can be learned and cultivated. I think guilt is a self-manipulation that has no positive side. I think that there are a lot of reason why people choose to manipulate themselves with guilt and the focus here on breaking of irrationally high standards limits the scope of how people use guilt. For example, some people motivate themselves out of guilt. “If i don’t . . . I’ll feel so guilty.” Etc. The shame material is good. Many thanks.

  14. Emma Chase says:

    I’m not into down voting, but I do wish we could UPVOTE some of these thoughtful replies posted above.

    It is easy to label SHAME as ‘Inappropriate’ but considering some of the family and societal comments and attitudes that survivors endure, it seems clear that it is not just survivors ‘inappropriately’ designating themselves as being somehow ‘responsible’.

    As an aside, in Public Health, there is a term we learned: “Response/Able” for the word ‘responsible’. The idea being that One must be empowered in a society, in order to own language and labelling.

  15. Richard F. Garrett says:

    Thank You, This is very Helpful !!
    Rick Garrett

  16. Debbie says:

    Thank you , so very helpful .

  17. This is a very useful tool to lead into a discussion of shame. It gives a patient lots to think about that they can discuss with their therapist.

  18. Reinhold Hemrich, MSW, RSW says:

    Thank you for the information. I am however, unlikely to use this handout. There are some reasons for this. I am uncomfortable with definitions that many clients I work with would feel are judgemental; meaning “appropriate” and “irrational” guilt. I also use only two categories, guilt and shame, where I just name them as separate entities, since most clients call all this stuff “guilt.” I state that guilt arises when you treat someone in ways you personally would not want to be treated. I then state that guilt is “useful” vs. “appropriate”, in that it alerts you to having behaved in ways you too would object to, and then helps you to take responsibility, apologize, make reparations and then make plans for how you would act in accordance with how you’d like to be treated. Shame on the other hand is not about harming someone, it is an internal sense of being flawed. And it is this aspect that is usually what clients mean by “guilt.” I see “irrational guilt” as part of shame . A simple exercise will show how that works; I ask clients what it would mean about them if they were not perfect: it usually means they are flawed in some way that grips them in their core, such as unlovable, unlikeable, etc. so its shame in my opinion. Having said all this, I whole heartedly agree that helping clients sort out or “unpack” shame from other states is vitally important. I would also like to note that shame can “highjack” guilt, but that’s another discussion.

    I would like to acknowledge that I initially found the information on shame and guilt in the children of alcoholics literature back in the late 80’s, where I can no longer recall the author. My concern about language use and in particular therapeutic judgements comes from the very painful reading of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s 1988 book “Emotional Tyranny and the Myth of Psychological Healing.”

    • Stephanie says:

      In the 80’s it was John Bradshaw’s “Healing the Shame That Binds You” that I found helpful. Today it is Brene Brown’s work on shame.

    • Susan says:

      Good topic. Yes, agree with your thoughts on definitions. I am always talking about guilt and shame with survivors of child abuse. Shame, we say, is the perpetrator’s guilt that you have taken on yourself. Once clients are able to put the guilt where it belongs, the feelings of shame begin to fade.

  19. Devi says:

    I love this chart–very handy. To remind myself I often associate shame with “Being” and guilt with “Doing” ie.
    I am ashamed of who I am vs. I am guilty about what I have done.

  20. Janet Congo says:

    Thank you a very helpful tool.

  21. grace says:

    Thank you so much. a very helpful visual for my clients and myself

  22. Karen Shaver says:

    Thank you for the clarity on this issue. It will be a great help with some clients.

  23. Rita says:

    I find that it is helpful to identify “appropriate guilt” as Remorse. It seems to put a clear difference between that and guilt. Then we look at guilt as assuming the responsibility for someone else’s feelings or interpretation of my behavior. Remorse is assuming the responsibility for my own chosen behavior.

  24. Deborah Lowery, M.A. says:

    Visual reinforces the verbal discussion. Thank you for creating this handout. Have printed a handout and the copyright information is included. Thank you for all you share.

  25. Rita says:

    I find that it is helpful to identify “appropriate guilt” as Remorse. It seems to put a clear difference between that and guilt

  26. Lorenia says:

    Thank you so much, this is a feast for our work and for our lives. I feel so well supported by you, NICABM team and your generosity.

  27. Frances says:

    Very helpful.
    A hard copy in a client’s hands for repeat reference often reinforces the work done in the session.

  28. Thank you for this.

  29. Judy hanazawa says:

    Appreciate this clearly worded and presented explanation of guilt, irrational guilt and shame.

  30. John Jones says:

    Thanks for this. Awesome work. Well be sure to credit it you as appropriate.

  31. Great handout except all 3 of your examples use male names – any particular reason for that? I work with women only and we have to unpack a lot of shame and guilt.

  32. I fowler says:

    Very helpfu handout. Thank you.

  33. Aline Bangert says:

    Thank you very much for sharing!

  34. Marion houghton says:

    Thank you. Very helpful in encouraging self-compassion in dealing with shame.

  35. I enjoyed the comparative aspects and the visual way the chart is laid out. I wonder if “irrational” guilt could be perceived as pejorative by some clients. It feel a little like that to me. I don’t know of more supportive way to define that particular concept of guilt, maybe “unearned” guilt? I am not sure that fits. Regardless this is a helpful tool.
    Thank you

  36. annie nehmad says:

    Very useful chart

  37. annie nehmad says:

    Very useful

  38. Vasilica Vasilescu says:

    Thank you for the great work.
    Sincerely,
    Vasilica Vasiolescu, PhD

  39. Lesley Tran says:

    Thank you. This looks very useful.
    Lesley

  40. Thanks for creating this chart and your generosity in sharing it with everyone.

    Heather McKechnie

  41. Mary Bean says:

    Thank you for this graphic. I can see myself using it to help coach people in wellness and health. There are situations in this scenario which are more effectively handled by separating guilt of not eating healthful foods or not exercising from shame about weight.

  42. Nsom Michael Angoh says:

    It is understandably that guilt and shame have different meanings or interpretation but they all come from a dishonest heart. Honesty is the best policy for one’s life.

    • Julie says:

      Naomi Micael Angoh, I sincerely hope you are not working with psychologically wounded people.

      They have often had other powerful people tell them just what you are saying, leading them to believe at a very deep level that they are worthless.

      They are NOT worthless!

      They are often feeling shame because of the evil imposed on them by other people; and those sorts of people are happy to leave their shame with the person they have belittled, violated and humiliated.

      That is the most dishonest heart I can think of existing in this world.

      Another type of dishonest heart belongs to the person who is too quick to judge people who are easier to judge because they feel shame, and thus they may look guilty. Those with the most dishonest hearts needs these quick-judgers to function.

      Finally, the truth: While honesty is the best policy and is an ideal for which we should all strive, it is like “utopia”. Utopia comes from the Greek and is a play on words. Depending on how the first syllable is spelled, it means ‘good/perfect place’ or ‘no (such) place’. Anyone who claims perfection (including perfectly honest, regardless of best intentions and values), has a dishonest heart – like the rest of humanity.

      We all should guard our hearts and search our hearts as we strive to be the most sincere AND COMPASSIONATE beings we can be, and gently lend a hand to others on the path knowing we are all flawed beings.

      • Julie says:

        Apologies for the spelling of your name, Nsomi Michael Angoh.

        Spell check, in its wisdom, changed my typing of Nsomi (I’m still fighting spellcheck to write this).
        I cannot blame spellcheck for Micael. That was my typo.
        I am sorry, I did not proofread my previous reply.

        All the very best on your path.

  43. Aspasia Holley says:

    Very clear and concise. Easy to understand. Thank you. For shame I’ve dona affirmations. One in the mirror telling myself I am enough and I love you. Sounds silly but, it really helps with my self talk. Even just being more aware of what I’m telling myself. I truly believe it’s helped me turn a corner on these. Very appreciative of all your hard work helping us trauma mamas and everyone affected by trauma!

  44. Excellent. Clear, concise and positive – a great tool for clients to work with. Manta thanks. Catherine

  45. Elvira Holz says:

    Thank you for this most valuable infografic.

  46. Thanks. Another great resource.

  47. Deb Foshager says:

    Excellent and very helpful synopsis of these two emotions. Thank you so much!

  48. Dawn Stillinger says:

    Thank you!

  49. Thank you so much. I appreciate the column about irrational guilt. I also suspect that the high standards that generate it may also reinforce shame based self-criticism and judgement if one has a shame prone personality.
    Great handout I will use with clients.

  50. Helen Wayne says:

    This is fantastic! Thank you for sharing this resource!!

  51. claire says:

    Great tool! I only wish it could be created with a lighter background that would make it easier to read and also demand less color ink to reproduce. Thanks for the content, though!

  52. Ruth Valentine says:

    Great resource – thank you

  53. Tamara, Student, Canada says:

    Great infographic. Very helpful to have the distinctions laid out for comparison like this and with examples and specifics for added clarity.

    I do wonder about “irrational” guilt — that column begs a lot of questions, it seems. Just using the word “irrational” seems to carry negative connotations, but I’m not sure what other language could be used here. Also, to be ‘irrationally’ guilty about forgetting a co-worker’s name from a place of having unreasonably high standards for one’s own behaviours seems a lot like fear-based shame to me, especially if stemming from a childhood of needing to please adults. The “irrational” guilt may have developed as a coping strategy to keep oneself safe as a child from demanding, critical, perfectionist, or punitive adults…meaning it was a needed, and in many ways the only rational, strategy at the time to avoid criticism and/or punishment. This might be worth unpacking further to get away from the negative connotation around “irrational” guilt.

    Of course, some people are HSPs (as per Dr. Elaine Aron’s work on Highly Sensitive Persons, in which the nervous system is **physiologically** more sensitive to stimuli, input, and so on). In the case of sensitivity like this, it’s not necessarily “irrational” — it’s simply a function of a more sensitive nervous system that is more responsive to input, including concern over others’ feelings.

    I notice that the shame column is worded in such a way as not to trigger shame!

    • Karen says:

      I agree with these comments. I think the irrational guilt column could use an infographic of its own — how to separate irrational from rational guilt? How to shed irrational standards? They arose for a reason and they serve a purpose. Thank you.

      • Tamara, Student, Canada says:

        Thank you, Karen.

  54. Shannon says:

    Wow, that helps me alot, let alone the people I work with. Definitely put things in perspective. Thank you for this very useful tool.

  55. Deborah Merchant says:

    Excellent tool to help a client become consciously aware of their feelings/experience, to put words to it. Then it can be used like a spectrum of worst to mildest experience, with client describing milder forms of shame/guilt, and then finding themselves on the spectrum during various sessions. Could be great for certain group therapy sessions as well. Thank you.

  56. This is a helpful distinction. It’s easy to confuse guilt with shame. So I may feel guilty as if I had done something wrong when actually I have done nothing or nothing I consider bad. It’s just that I was made to feel bad or evil by someone, generally when very young. So really it’s shame. It is helpful to realise this, easier to reject that attribution and feeling when you realise it’s shame rather than guilt.

  57. Ken says:

    As one goes through stages of values development, what was healthy and required for growth at one stage becomes a limiting belief at the next. Child vs. Adult is a simplification, which depends on the stage of development considered “adult” in one’s culture.

  58. Suzy says:

    Shame is something adopted early on. We must retrain our brain to rid ourselves of shame.
    Even still it comes back to haunt from tine to time

  59. Sarah says:

    Would love to see the research base for this. Clearly Dr. Brené Brown has written and speaks extensively about this and another researcher, Dr. Jan Lindsay-Hartz weighed in above too. Too bad those women who have devoted years of study aren’t referenced in this graphic. Unethical really. Dr. Brown’s extensive research does not match your info graphic.

    • This infographic was created based on responses given by the 25 experts in the Next Level Practitioner program to questions on how to work with shame. While we admire the work of Dr. Brown and Dr. Lindsay-Hartz, neither of these fine people are part of that program.

    • doris says:

      We all remember and forget and need each other to remember. Sarah, your comment is a perfect example of what creates healthy guilt (which is an invitation to grow) vs unhealthy shame in me. That you acknowledge Dr. Brown and Lindsay-Hartz’s work is an invitation to remember; digesting the label “unethical” creates shame and makes me forget that we’re all “remembering together.”

  60. Katharina Beraldo says:

    Thank you! Very interesting!

  61. Rochelle says:

    Thank you! I appreciate that.

  62. A very nice resource. I did some of the early seminal work, differentiating shame and guilt through phenomenological research. I have several papers available on academia.edu, from the 1980s and 1990s, which are the basis for much of the research and clinical work that has followed. I also will soon be uploading many of my early works focused on working therapeutically with shame vs. guilt. Just google Lindsay-Hartz and shame and guilt, and maybe academia.edu, and my papers will show up. They are free to download I believe, and are still very relevant today. Often, over the years, clinicians write things about shame and guilt that contain small but important inaccuracies. Understanding these emotions and their differences is vitally important to clinical work. Many of my research papers are also available on my website. drjanhartz.com. I am now retired from my c42 years of clinical practice, but still follow all the work on shame and guilt. And the function of shame and guilt are neutral, sort of. Each can be appropriate, or non-adaptive, depending on the person and the situation.

  63. I think it is a serious mistake to seek forgiveness from those you have harmed.
    In doing so, you are again creating stress on them as you are asking for something from them when through your previous actions you have already taken some of their wholeness away.
    Apologizing is only a small beginning. Finding a way to create real restitution for the offender and a sense in those you have harmed that you have seriously efforted to make things right. Dianne Gossen’s work is so important in this regard and it’s application in schools is enormously healing and integrative.
    http://Www.realrestitution.com

    • Con Boehme says:

      I agree that forgiveness is more than just words, it must be heart felt and sincere. Where possible actions to correct the harm and damage done needs to take place. When we try and right the wrongs we have done to someone else, this can assist in bringing them back to a sense of wholeness and integration. Thanks for your post!

  64. Grant Jones says:

    This is a great resource and thanks for putting it together. However, I believe you are missing one key important distinction: There is rational (healthy) shame AND irrational shame (toxic/destructive). Healthy shame helps maintain boundaries and prevents harming others/self again. You have a self-negation of your behavior after you have wronged/wounded someone and feel badly about doing it so as to prevent doing it again. Focus again is on behavior and not person hood.

    • Grant, I completely agree. I got that term, Healthy Shame, from John Bradshaw. And it has nothing to do with guilt. You can use a phrase, such as we do in English, “shameless hussy,” to describe someone who may expose her private parts in public, let’s say. There is really nothing to feel guilty about, but “healthy shame” may keep her from letting her skirt blow up when she knows she’s not wearing any underwear, for instance. It may not bother her, per se, but it may bother those around her, and she needs to be aware of that.

      Once you understand the term, it becomes very valuable in identifying people who have no healthy shame, and the trouble they can cause in your life – outside of therapy. Another way to understand the term may be imagining asking someone, “Have you no shame?” I know that many people have trouble with this concept, but I believe it is very valuable to help you identify a trait in someone you may not otherwise be able to put your finger on.

      • doris says:

        This is helping Debbie. I can see that “letting her skirt blow up” would make a woman unaware of how she impacts her environment. But I still don’t understand why it would be necessarily “healthy shame” that’d make her more aware.

        • doris says:

          The more I think about “healthy shame,” the more questions I have. Why would it be “healthy shame” and not the freedom to receive from (and respond to) my environment each moment anew that makes me know what would be considered shameful in the here and now. When my Ego feels connected, I get informed about what people around would consider shameful as life unfolds. I don’t need to rely on a recording from once upon a time (when I got shamed) telling me what was considered shameful then must be shameful now.

          • Yes, Debbie. Doris, it feels when I hear you talking that you may need to also know the definition of “Shame-based” (also via John Brandshaw). I refer his books to a lot of people. Of course there is the one called “Healing the Shame that Binds You,” although any of his books are good.

            I obviously don’t know enough about you, but as someone who had to deal with being shame-based myself (and i can slip back into it easily), it’s possible that you have a blindspot with this issue because of shame. NICABM and specifically the Next Step Program has some great info on shame.

            If I’m totally off-base, I apologize, but I think shame is something that anyone was lucky to avoid in this day and age. And it’s very insidious.

          • Debbie Jeffrey says:

            Shame is an emotion that connects us to our social group. That’s what can make it a healthy emotion.Think about it … the people who feel no shame are those who seem also to have no conscience – people with sociopathic features. All emotions can exist in a healthy and an unhealthy form. When we can’t acknowledge and examine our shame (understand whether it’s warranted) it’s more likely to become sticky and take us into a dark place. Thats the difference between healthy & unhealthy shame.

    • doris says:

      Hi Grant, To me it seems what you call “(healthy) shame” is described as “healthy guilt.”
      Guilt is about what we can change in us. Shame is about what we can’t change in us.
      We can’t change that we have a blind spot and need to feel exposed to give new (kind) eyes
      a chance to mirror the exposure without creating blame and shame.

    • What is essential is the process of seeking and finding real restitution. Anything less leaves a hole in both parties

      • Jacqueline Hielkema says:

        This is worth debating. I too think this is a very good resource which could be excellent if it also differentiated between appropriate shame and unconscious shame, as discussed above.

      • Jacqueline says:

        This is worth debating. I too think this is a very good resource which could be excellent if it also differentiated between appropriate shame and unconscious shame, as discussed above.

      • doris says:

        I wonder what needs to get restored or returned to leave no hole and find “real restitution” after one finds that one played another’s fool or needed another played to play one’s fool?

  65. Wanda says:

    Thank you for this clear graphic.

  66. Deborah says:

    thank you

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