The Difference Between Shame and Guilt and Why it Matters

Shame Guilt

The difference between guilt and shame and why it matters

When I talk about shame with my clients, they are often worried that if shame is reduced in their life, then they will get nothing done. This is based on the very common myth that shame is a good motivator. However, when you break shame down, you will find it is actually holding you back. So let’s break it down a bit. 

To talk about why shame isn’t a motivator, we must also talk about guilt. Guilt is helpful and productive; guilt is why we choose not to steal from a store or intentionally hurt someone’s feelings. Guilt says “I did something bad.”

Shame is different in many ways. Shame is unproductive, it holds you back, and beats you down. Shame says “I am bad.” Shame hurts deeply, and is often tied to trauma or painful past experiences. 

Shame is what drives is to numb ourselves or isolate from others. It’s painful and it usually involves a spiraling effect that is really tough to step out of.

Shame can often be confused with guilt, embarrassment, humiliation, and motivation. It’s very common for people to say “How will I better myself if I don’t shame myself?” If shame hasn’t worked before, it probably won’t work next time! Even if it does work, what is the cost of shaming yourself? And don’t forget—guilt is not shame, and guilt works as a great, healthy motivator. Consequences also don’t go away when shame goes away, and consequences can also be stellar motivators if you let them. Shame can actually cover up guilt and consequences so that we don’t see them, and instead just feel bad about ourselves. 

Where it comes from

Shame can come from many different places, like our childhood, messages from society, or traumatic experiences. We can get the wires crossed and connect our behaviors with who we are as a person, and this becomes the shame belief “I am bad/worthless/stupid/etc.” This over-identification sticks with you. Those stuck messages don’t fizzle out when you get older, even with all of the knowledge and capabilities you’ve gained with age. Those messages are deep rooted, and they are more tied to emotion and internalized beliefs than rational thought. Logic doesn’t always work with shame. 

How to let go of shame

Talk to a therapist. Brene Brown says that the antidote to shame is empathy, which comes with self-compassion or vulnerability with a person you trust. If you find this hard (or unbelievable!), it can be very helpful to work through those barriers with a therapist. When you’re ready, self-compassion and vulnerability will be the keys. 

If you’re interested in doing some personal work around shame, contact us to set up a session! 

Authored by: Jessica Chavolla, LPC


Michael Primeaux