What's the difference between guilt and shame?

The two are often confused. They are both horrible emotions, for sure!


Guilt, though, is about something I have said or done (or not said or done) for which I feel regret. Maybe I was disrespectful or was insensitive. At least I can learn from this and do better the next time.


Shame, on the other hand, is about who I am. It is a fundamental belief about myself, such as not being good enough, smart enough, lovable enough, worthy enough, or, too ____. Because it's about who I am I cannot change it, learn from it, or improve myself. I'm "stuck" with this lack or inadequacy about myself.


To put it simply, guilt is when I messed up; shame says I am messed up.


Learn more about shame by reading this article on Psychology Today.


Turns out that shame is at the root of all addictions and contributes a great deal to our relationship problems.


Thankfully we don't have to carry shame around forever. We can embrace our love-ability, worthiness of relationship and more!

Moving beyond shame

There are two ways to shed shame and so live more meaningful, rich and worth-while lives.


  1. Discovering that I am not alone in feeling ashamed
  2. Risking my shame to another human being


Do you recall a time when you thought you were the only one that had a particular habit, liked something most people did not, or thought you were 'weird' in some way? Then you came across someone else who had a similar habit, like, or 'weirdness?' What a relief this was for you! Here a ray of light entered into a very dark place. When you may have actually felt lighter. Freer. Permitted to be your own unique being. This is one way shame is reduced.


Another way of releasing shame, well illustrated by Brené Brown's seminal work, is courageously sharing that shame with another human being. Looking him or her in his/her eyes and sharing one's shame from the heart. Feeling its weight, its deadness, its life-sucking nature and opening one's soul to another.

What is most important is that the listener not try to make the one sharing shame to feel better. "Oh, you're not that bad" and similar lines only serve to shame the person even more deeply. It is as if the one sharing is hearing, "Shame on you for feeling this way." Not helpful! What is truly helpful is by being open oneself. "Thank you so for being so courageous to share with me something that's so obviously pained you for so long."  Or, "I am touched that you would risk yourself with me this much." Another way of responding would be to appreciate what this has been like for the one sharing their shame, such as, "I can tell that you have been really suffering from carrying around this shame." Or, "Wow. What a lot of weight this shame must have been for you." Acknowledging the other person, and the act of courage by sharing their shame, is very connecting. Connection is the antidote for shame.


Either the first or second method has one commonality: By being real with each other we get to be authentic and loved for the unique individual we all are.

Shame and Relationships

This couple are obviously not doing well together. While she may look angry and he more depressed or confused, both are suffering from shame. Shame disconnects us more than anything else (even money!).


He might be thinking, "Why am I such a screw-up to make my wife so unhappy?"  (Notice that shame statements almost always have a "I am" in them.)


She might be thinking, "What's wrong with me that I picked such a loser?" Underneath this question is a doubt about her worthiness for a truly loving relationship.


How can this couple move beyond their disconnecting sense of shame? Here are some ideas (of many!):

  1. Acknowledge the shame. When shame is brought into the light of one's consciousness it begins to wither. It prefers to stay underground, where it can be hidden and inflict a maximum amount of damage.
  2. Recognise that shame pretends to be who we are. It is not. It is only a belief statement about who we are. In fact who we actually are is human, witty, loving, somewhat capable, soulful beings. It is not a permanent condition.
  3. The most difficult thing is to begin opening the door for connection by holding oneself (taking care of one's own well-being rather than giving one's self-esteem to the other) and acknowledging the pain both are likely experiencing. And the intention of improving that relationship. Then to risk the shame that has been getting in one's way of improving the relationship. If your partner doesn't respond well at that time this approach may have to be tried several times, carefully avoiding blaming self or the other, and inviting the other to enter into the sacred territory of emotional intimacy.
  4. Having compassion (vs. fear) for both partners and their relationship is also key.
  5. Try putting into practice some of the tips found on the conflict resolution page.
  6. Professional assistance by someone trained in marriage and family (systems) therapy may be necessary, and certainly can be recommended.