Although shame and guilt may seem similar, shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression and aggression. In contrast, guilt is linked to empathy and understanding other perspectives.
What’s the difference? In a TED talk, academic Brené Brown explains it thus:
Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behaviour. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.
But it’s not just a petty matter of semantics. Brown goes on to explain:
Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders.
Here’s what you even need to know more: Guilt is inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we’ve done, or failed to do, up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive.
Clinical psychologist Mary C. Lamia explained in Psychology Today that bullies are particularly shame-prone. She wrote: “That means they are afraid their failures or shortcomings will be exposed. A person can have problems with shame and still have high self-esteem, and this is what makes a person act like a bully.” This study (and others cited in it) supports Brown’s claim that shame contributes to violence and anger arousal.
The solution isn’t to get rid of shame. Shame is natural, and comes with our human relationships. However, we’ve been taught, “Never let them see you sweat.” Brown says the solution is to do the opposite: Be vulnerable.
And what about Brown’s claim that guilt is inversely correlated with anger? This paper published in the Journal of Personality suggests that guilt has been linked to prosocial, relationship-enhancing effects. One study found that shame was linked to personal distress, whereas guilt was linked to perspective taking.
While this has implications for how we frame our own shortcomings and failures, we should also surround ourselves with people who are naturally less shame-prone and more guilt-prone.
We all make mistakes, but that doesn’t make us failures.