Shame & Guilt

Shame & Guilt

Shame and guilt are two powerful emotions that can have a major impact on individuals’ lives.

Shame can cause people to feel defective, unacceptable, even damaged beyond repair. It has impacts on self-image and self-esteem and is often experienced as an intense feeling of humiliation or worthlessness, accompanied by a sense of powerlessness and helplessness. 

Guilt is a feeling of remorse or responsibility for something you’ve done wrong. It is described as a self-conscious emotion that involves negative evaluations of the self, feelings of distress, and feelings of failure.

CATEGORY: Emotions


Number: #17


Dog By Broken Plant Pot
Dog Eating Donut Off The Table
Sad Shepherd Hiding Under Sheet
Ashamed Pug 2


A study released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing in 2023 (5,500 people aged 16 to 85 years old during 2020-2021) showed that more than two in five Australians experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. In 2020–21 more than 3.4 million Australians sought help from a health care professional for their mental health.

The study is published at


Shame and guilt are often confused, but they are fundamentally different emotions.

Guilt is a feeling you get when you did something wrong, or perceived you did something wrong. Shame is a feeling that your whole self is wrong, and it may not be related to a specific behavior or event.


  • Feeling remorse or responsible for something you’ve done wrong or perceived you did wrong and feel bad about
  • Relating to a specific action like making a mistake, committing an offense, or hurting someone (intentionally or unintentionally)

There are a number of different types of guilt, and some of these include:

  • Natural guilt: If you genuinely committed a wrong and feel bad for what you have done, guilt is a normal response. This type of guilt can be adaptive and can motivate you to take action or make changes in ways that are beneficial in the future. For example, you might relieve your guilt by apologising for an action or changing a problematic behaviour. If these actions are not addressed in a way that allows you to move on, however, they may lead to lingering feelings of persistent guilt that interfere with your life.
  • Maladaptive guilt: Sometimes people feel guilty about things that weren’t within their control. For example, they may feel guilty that they didn’t take action to prevent something that they had no way of predicting. Even though there was truly nothing they could do, they still feel strong feelings of regret, shame, and guilt.
  • Guilty thoughts: Everyone has negative or inappropriate thoughts from time to time, yet sometimes people develop feelings of guilt for having such thoughts. Even though they may not act on them, they may fear that it means that they will or fear that others will find out about their “bad” thoughts.
  • Existential guilt: This type of guilt can be complicated and often centered on things like guilt over injustices or guilt about not living according to one’s principles. One type of existential guilt is known as survivor’s guilt. Sometimes people will experience guilt because they are doing well when others they care about are not. This can emerge when someone survives some type of accident or disaster in which others are harmed, but it can also occur when other people experience misfortune when you don’t.

Guilt isn’t necessarily an unhealthy emotion. It can help you learn to identify things you want to change and find ways to mend relationships you may have harmed.

Feelings of guilt can serve as a way to identify and correct social transgressions that threaten relationships with other people.

It is when these feelings become persistent and overwhelming that it is important to seek professional help. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if you are experiencing symptoms of excessive guilt or other symptoms of depression.


  • Shame refers to something about your character or who you are as a person that you believe is unacceptable
  • Shame is not about doing something wrong. It is about a feeling that you have when you perceive that you are not good enough in some way
  • Feeling that you are bad, worthy of contempt, or inadequate as a person
  • Relating to our behaviour or self, often in relation to other people’s opinions, not necessarily about a specific behaviour or event

When you feel guilty about the wrong thing you did, you can take steps to make up for it and put it behind you.

But feeling shame, or being convinced thatyouare the thing that’s wrong, offers no clear-cut way to “come back” to feeling more positive about yourself. That’s one difference between shame and guilt.

Shame can be problematic when it becomes internalised and results in an overly harsh evaluation of oneself as a whole person. This inner critic might tell you that you are a bad person, worthless, or have no value. The truth is, how deeply you feel ashamed often has little to do with your worth or what you have done wrong.

From the day you were born, you were learning to feel that you were okay or not okay, accepted or not accepted, in your world. Your self-esteem was shaped by your daily experiences of being praised or criticised, lovingly disciplined or punished, taken care of or neglected.

People who grow up in abusive environments can easily get the message that they are undeserving, inadequate, and inferior—in other words, that they should feel ashamed.

Over time, intense feelings of shame can take hold of a person’s self-image and create low self-esteem. Feelings of shame often stem from what other people think. The person may become super-sensitive to what feels like criticism, even if it isn’t, and may feel rejected by others. Inside, they feel painful self-contempt and worthlessness.

One person who has spent over 20 years researching shame is Brene Brown, and her books and videos are well worth checking out for excellent information about shame, shame responses, shame’s relationship to courage and vulnerability, to leadership and to other emotions.


Symptoms of shame have been well researched and there are several ways to look at this aspect of shame. Guilt can be a significant feature in depression, anxiety disorders and some personality disorders, and in fact for all of us if we have done something wrong or something we feel bad about.


Researchers have identified 4 categories of shame behaviours.

The Hot Response

These are things you do when you feel ashamed and defensive, such as lashing out in anger or attacking the other person to deflect attention from yourself. The hot response is usually an impulsive reaction.

Behaviours to Cope With or Conceal Shame

These behaviours include doing things to make yourself feel small, trying to avoid being the center of attention, or not sharing your thoughts or feelings. Concealing yourself is a method of self-protection.

Safety Behaviours to Avoid Shame or Being Discovered

This category of shame behaviours might be things like apologising, crying, or avoiding conflict. People who have a tendency toward being emotional or avoiding conflict may be more likely to engage in safety behaviours.

Behaviours to Repair Shame

These might include things like doing things to soothe yourself or apologising to others. For example, if you forgot an important anniversary, you might tell yourself that you had a lot on your mind or engage in gestures to show that you are sorry.

Here are some responses and behaviours you might notice when shame is present:

  • Feeling sensitive or being worried about what others think of you
  • Feeling unappreciated, used, or like others take advantage of you
  • Feeling rejected, regretful, inadequate, or like you have little impact
  • Uncontrollable blushing, or being afraid to look inappropriate or stupid
  • Worrying that you aren’t treated with respect, or wanting to have the last word
  • Feeling that you can’t be your true self, losing your identity, or not sharing your thoughts or feelings because you are afraid to be embarrassed
  • Being more worried about failure than doing something immoral or dishonorable, being a perfectionist
  • Feeling like an outsider, that you are different or left out, or feeling suspicious and like you can’t trust others
  • Being a wallflower or shrinking violet, wanting to shut people out or withdraw, trying to hide or be inconspicuous, or not wanting to be the center of attention
  • Looking down instead of looking people in the eye
  • Keeping your head hung low, or slumping your shoulders instead of standing up straight
  • Feeling frozen or unable to move
  • Not being able to act spontaneously
  • Stuttering when trying to speak or talking in an overly soft voice
  • Hiding their self from others
  • Crying if they feel shame or embarrassment

Impact of Shame

If you’ve experienced shame, you probably know that it can have a negative impact on your life. Below are some of the potential negative impacts you might experience because of shame:

  • Makes you feel like you are flawed or there is something wrong with you
  • Can lead to social withdrawal, especially when it is a result of public stigma
  • Can lead to addictions (e.g., alcohol, drugs, spending, sex)
  • May cause you to become defensive and shame others in return
  • May lead you to bully others if you have been bullied yourself
  • May cause you to inflate your ego to hide the belief that you don’t have value (narcissistic personality)
  • May lead to physical health problems
  • Can be related to depression and sadness
  • May leave you feeling empty, lonely, or worn out
  • May lead to lowered self-esteem
  • May make it harder for you to trust other people
  • May make it harder for you to be in therapy or to stop feeling as though you are being judged
  • May lead to perfectionism or overachievement to try and counteract your feelings of shame
  • May cause you to engage in people pleasing
  • May cause you to avoid talking because you are afraid to say the wrong thing
  • May cause compulsive or excessive behaviors like strict dieting, overworking, excessive cleaning, or having too high of standards in general

As you can see, most of the impacts of shame lead to behaviours that create a vicious cycle. You feel shame, which causes you to engage in behaviours that can lead to more feelings of shame. These behaviours can also be detrimental in and of themselves, creating potential physical or mental health problems on their own.

Therapy | Treatment


Treatment for guilt is really only necessary if you are ‘stuck’ in your guilt, unable to move on from it and this begins to impair your functioning. Or, if you are someone who feels so guilty, so often, about things that are often outside your control that this impairs your functioning.

In such cases, treatment with a psychologist can be helpful. If you are trying to cope with persistent feelings of guilt, there are things that you can do that may make it easier to manage these difficult emotions. Some strategies that may help you cope with a guilt complex include:

Dealing With Guilt

Reframe the Situation

If you find yourself only focusing on negative thoughts, consider ways to think differently about the situation. Were there other factors that played a role? What can you do differently in the future? Finding a way to shift your focus from the negative to more realistic, positive thoughts may help you move past your feelings of self-recrimination.

Forgive Yourself

Learning how to practice self-forgiveness can be an important tool for letting go of guilt. Forgiving yourself doesn’t mean letting yourself off the hook if you’ve made a mistake or caused someone harm; instead, it’s about taking responsibility, allowing yourself some time to express remorse, making amends, and then finding a way to move on.

Talk to Someone

Sharing your feelings with a close friend can sometimes be helpful. Social support can play a pivotal role in coping with difficult emotions, so maintaining your relationships with friends and loved ones is important. If you struggle to talk to your loved ones about your feelings of guilt or if they are not providing the type of support you need, discussing your feelings with a mental health professional can also be helpful.

Dealing With Shame

Dealing with shame basically has 3 main components (exploring, embracing and accepting your shame), and you can try these on your own.

If you are struggling with shame and it is impairing and impacting your functioning, as it often does, sometimes severely so, it would be a good idea to see a psychologist to help you deal with this so you can let it go and live a happier and more fulfilling life.

Explore Your Shame

The first step in moving on from your shame is to understand what it is all about. This is important because it will be impossible for you to heal from your shame if you haven’t identified it for what it is.

Gaining perspective on your shame by understanding where it has come from and how it influences your current decisions (through emotional memories) can go a long way toward stopping shame from ruling your life.

One way to recognise your shame is to start paying attention to your emotions in different situations. When are your feelings of shame triggered? And when you feel shame, how do you react or how do you feel differently?

If you aren’t sure, try writing in a journal about your feelings of shame. In particular, you could write about events from your past in which you felt shame or that influence you today in your feelings of shame. Write down any feelings or thoughts you have and how you reacted to that past situation.

Next, spend some time examining how past shame still influences you today in terms of current shame. What did past situations teach you about yourself? Bringing your shame into the light is a way to escape from having it cast a shadow on your current self.

Embrace Your Shame

Now that you have identified and acknowledged your shame, it’s time to work on embracing your shame. While this might feel counterintuitive, in order to heal from your feelings of shame, it is necessary to bring those feelings out from your internal world and into the light of day.

It’s natural to want to put up defenses and barriers when doing this work. Therefore, it’s important to show yourself love and acceptance and to surround yourself with people who will show you the same. You need a safe place to belong and a group that will shower you with non-judgemental love. If you don’t already have that in your life, seek it out from friends, family, or even a support group. When doing this:

  • Remember that your love for yourself must be unconditional (without any strings) when you feel shame.
  • Be honest with yourself and with other people.
  • Don’t avoid the shame that you are feeling. Rather, talk about your feelings and share them when in the safe space that you have created.
  • Allow your suffering to be legitimised and normalised. This will help you gain some perspective on your shame.

If you feel uncomfortable doing these things on your own, consider speaking to a therapist and making that your safe place.

Aim for Acceptance

As you go through this process, it’s important to reexamine your beliefs and attitudes about yourself. This is the time to start rejecting the old beliefs that there is something inherently wrong with you. Instead, accept your new reality that you are acceptable and lovable just as you are. You will also be accepting the fact that you may make mistakes and that is okay.

During this time, you may want to find a mentor or accountability partner who can help you set priorities and make decisions. Although your own healing process is highly personal, going on the journey with another person who understands could be highly beneficial.