understanding shame and guilt

Shame and guilt are both linked to disgust, embarrassment, humiliation, regret, remorse, and self-consciousness, profoundly impacting on our mental health and behavior (Lebow, 2021). These emotions are rooted in social norms and can either hinder or propel our personal growth, depending on how you address them. This guide explores the nuances of shame and guilt, their psychological underpinnings, and effective strategies for coping with these challenging emotions.

Characteristics of Shame:

Shame is an intense, often debilitating emotion that affects our sense of self and our place in the world. It arises not just from what we’ve done, but from a deep-seated feeling of inadequacy or unworthiness.

Research suggests that shame can develop as early as 15 months old, indicating deeper neurological roots (NICABM, 2017). It’s associated with anger, poor self-esteem, and high-risk behaviors, highlighting the importance of effective coping mechanisms (Terrizzi and Shook, 2020; Lebow, 2021).

  • Self-focused:
    Shame triggers a negative evaluation of our entire being, leading to feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing.
  • Global Impact:
    It paints our mistakes or flaws as indicative of our overall value as a person.
  • Identity-Linked:
    Shame is deeply intertwined with our identity, making it hard to separate our actions from our self-worth.
  • Behavioral Responses:
    It often results in hiding, denial, or avoidance, pushing us away from addressing the root issues.

Strategies for Overcoming Shame:

  • Acknowledgment and Reflection:
    Recognize and reflect on your feelings of shame, exploring potential triggers.
  • Reframing Thoughts:
    Challenge negative thoughts and reframe them into more neutral or positive ones.
  • Self-Compassion:
    Practice unconditional love and kindness towards yourself.
  • Seek Support:
    Psychotherapy can offer valuable insights into the conscious and unconscious processes that fuel the shame cycle (Cox, 2022).

overcoming guilt

Characteristics of Guilt:

Guilt is a negative evaluation of a specific behavior or action, rather than the self. You failed because you did something wrong or violated standards, values, and morals.

Emerging between ages 3-6, guilt’s development indicates its role in social and moral understanding (NICABM, 2017). It’s linked to empathy and the desire to correct wrongs, offering a pathway to personal and relational growth (Terrizzi and Shook, 2020; Lebow, 2021).

  • Behavior-Specific:
    Guilt is tied to particular actions or failures, allowing for a more objective assessment of wrongdoing.
  • Situational:
    Guilt is focused on a particular event or action, rather than being a global evaluation of the self
  • Motivation for Repair:
    It encourages making amends and changing behaviors to align with personal and societal values.
  • Relational Healing:
    Guilt can lead to apologies or restitution, aiding in the repair of relationships and trust.

Working through Guilt:

  • Open Communication:
    Share your feelings honestly and without self-judgment.
  • Self-Forgiveness:
    Challenge negative self-talk and replace it with positive affirmations.
  • Future Planning:
    Set new values and create actionable plans for improvement.
  • Take Responsibility:
    Acknowledge your actions and take responsibility for them. If possible, make amends.
  • Embracing Growth:
    Develop a growth mindset, focusing on future opportunities rather than past mistakes.

taking responsibility and making amends

Transforming Shame and Guilt into Opportunities for Growth

While both shame and guilt can challenge our emotional wellbeing, understanding their distinctions and impacts enables us to navigate these emotions effectively. Shame is more likely to lead to self-destructive patterns and stagnation than guilt, which can motivate a person to take the necessary steps to amend mistakes and grow. By adopting healthy coping strategies, you can transform these feelings into catalysts for personal development and stronger, more empathetic relationships. Remember, experiencing shame or guilt does not define you; how you respond to these emotions is key.


1. Cox, J. (2022, May 13). Toxic shame: Causes, consequences, and how to Cope. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-toxic-shame#recap

2. Lebow, H. (2021, October 20). Guilt vs. shame: Are they different or the same?. Healthline Media. https://psychcentral.com/health/guilt-vs-shame

3. NICABM. (2017). Guilt vs. shame . National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. https://www.nicabm.com/guilt-vs-shame

4. Terrizzi Jr., J. A., & Shook, N. J. (2020). On the origin of shame: Does shame emerge from an evolved disease-avoidance architecture? Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2020.00019