As a therapist, I often work with clients who struggle with guilt or shame. Although we might use shame and guilt interchangeably when we speak , there are some important distinctions between the two. Learning about the distinction between guilt and shame is an important part of our healing journey since it helps us to label our feelings more accurately and hopefully change some of our unhealthy beliefs about ourselves.
Guilt is the feeling of discomfort we experience when we do something that goes against our values and for which we feel responsible. Shame , on the other hand , is a deep seated belief that we are fundamentally flawed. Shame tells us there is something inherently wrong with our being. In other words, guilt is about what we have done , whereas shame is more about who we are.
Shame can be felt deeply in children as young as fifteen months old and can be wired into an infant’s brain in very early stages of development. Being abandoned by caregivers, being shamed for having basic needs , being bullied , and being abused are all experiences that can impact our sense of self worth.
Good therapy helps clients recognize the difference between shame and guilt , separate their sense of worth from their behaviour and heal the traumatic wounds that have led to the shame. Guilt is addressed in therapy through exploring what the guilt is trying to telling us about our behaviour and exploring our options for how we want to change our behaviour or make amends going forward.