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Understanding the Differences Between Guilt and Shame

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

We often confuse guilt and shame. They share many similarities and we can struggle to differentiate between them. Guilt is an emotion experienced in response to wrongdoings, such as feeling sorry for doing something that is perceived as bad. On the other hand, shame is a much broader emotion that deals with self-perception and beliefs, such as feeling embarrassed or not feeling ‘good enough’. Somatic Experiencing is a therapy which can help individuals to understand and differentiate between guilt and shame and process them separately.

Processing guilt and shame separately is beneficial, as guilt is more readily processed with compassion. Facing and accepting guilt is an important step to understanding our past behaviours and choices. Taking responsibility and making peace with ourselves allows us to make meaningful amends with those we may have harmed and move forward with new learnings. Shame, on the other hand, is not something that can be readily resolved. With shame we don’t feel like we have wronged someone else; instead, we can feel fundamentally flawed or inferior. To this end, processing guilt and shame separately allows us to attend to these emotions in their own way.

For instance, rather than responding with self-criticism, it is important to recognize our emotions, understand them, and to speak to ourselves in a compassionate way. Furthermore, learning to find courage and resiliency to open up and explore our feelings of guilt and shame, along with guidance and support, is important in helping to cope with both these emotions. When we feel stuck and can’t differentiate between the two, Somatic Experiencing can provide useful insight and structure for identifying guilt and shame, which is important for making meaningful amends and ultimately, feeling more in control and more self-empowered.

Therefore, understanding the differences between guilt and shame, and learning how to process each separately is an important step towards self-reflection, growth, and understanding our unique life stories. Through this process, we can embrace the discomfort and embrace who we are and what we stand for.

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