Difference between shame and guilt

As you may have already gathered from my previous post, the meeting between friends from my university days have prompted many thoughts in me. Today, I received an email from one of my friends and I was surprised by the unease and resistance I felt towards some of the words he used. More specifically on words like ‘shallow’ and particularly on ‘shame’. I then realised that this is not the first time, ‘shame’ has come into our conversations.

The first time it was mentioned, was in relation to the common practice of continual financial support from ones’ parents, which in practice could go on almost indefinitely. He expressed that he doesn’t mind his girlfriend (wife now) using her parent’ money even after marriage to support daily spendings. Upon further discussion, I put across to my friend that I would like to be financially independent of my parents once I completed my doctorate. And that I have been plagued by guilt for some time now for relying on them for such an extended period of time. To this, he reacted strongly saying that he doesn’t think it is shameful for his wife to be using her parents’ money. I was taken back and immediately clarified that I am not judging her and it hasn’t crossed my mind to think about it as shameful. A debate ensured. He was unconvinced that I don’t think it is shameful. Putting some of my therapeutic skills into practice, I clarified that the word ‘shameful’ was a concept that he brought into our conversation. Whilst I can see how it could be seen as shameful having been brought up in an Eastern society myself, in this particular context, I felt guilt rather than shame towards my parents. We left it at that and I didn’t think anymore of it.

My partner and I have been talking about marriage for some time now and he recently proposed to me on a romantic hot air balloon flight and indulged me with a dreamlike engagement ring. In a conversation with this friend of mine, he felt that my partner’s actions have put him to shame, as he felt he did a very simple proposal. This time, I was very interested in the word ‘shame’ and could feel a strange resistance towards it. It also stood out for me as I haven’t heard this word for a very long time. Yes, we read about it in psychological literature and interestingly it is usually associated with the Eastern culture, furthermore in my personal experience of conversations with clients, course mates or colleagues the closest emotion/ concept that have been brought up is ‘embarrassment’. Shame is rarely mentioned.

Following this thread of thinking, I did some research online and found an abundance of journal articles on this. One in particular stood out for me- ‘Cultural Models of Shame and Guilt‘ by Ying Wong and Jeanne Tsai. According to a review of the literature carried out by them, there is a fundamental consensus that shame and guilt is a ‘moral’ emotion. Thus it is experienced when an individual perceived that they have done something wrong. Moreover, shame is experienced when one perceived that others have evaluated their actions to be wrong/bad, whereas guilt is experienced as a result of an internal evaluation when the individual him/herself perceived their action to be wrong/bad. All these made sense so far considering Eastern’s collectivist vs Western’s individualistic society. Moreover, the article went on to propose that guilt and shame are similar to each other and in collectivist cultures, the difference is less pronounced. Guilt and shame are often used together. In addition to that, guilt and shame are context dependent. Guilt is expressed when a general code of conduct has been violated whereas shame relates to situational context. Thus shame is a more appropriate emotion than guilt in some context. It has also been suggested that it is a valued emotion in non-Western cultures as a response to failures and prompts self-criticisms which drive individuals to success. This makes logical sense to me, but somehow, it’s still niggling me. For me, it sounds like a shame-induced self-motivation suggests that we are driven to success based on goals established in relation to others. Yes, we all exist in relation to the other, but the scale of balance between self and other is a delicate one. I have personally found living my life to familial and societal expectations a tiring one.

Its’ prevalence is well documented. Research (Li et al, 2004) found that there are 83 shame related terms in a Chinese dictionary and 113 shame related terms. This puts into perspective the salience of shame. It was also found that, parents in Chinese culture are more likely to use shaming techniques to educate. Moreover, research has found that shaming in American schools have harmful consequences for students whereas for students from collectivist cultures, it appears to be self-motivating (Reasoner, 1992). Thus Wong and Tsai (2007) proposed a cultural sensitive model to working with clients in psychotherapy, where eliminating shame and/or guilt may be counter productive.

Having lived in the UK for more than 10 years and perhaps due to nature of psychotherapeutic, perhaps I have become more individualistic in my way of thinking. On reflection, my resistance towards the concept of shame is perhaps due to its focus on the negative impact of others perception towards oneself. Perhaps having seen the devastating effect of stigma, which I find to be similar to the concept of shame, I am hesitating to endorse it. I remained unconvinced that it is productive although it inevitably exists and needs to be worked with. Perhaps, it is a matter of perspective and it an emotion that could be harnessed for positive self-development.

There’s such a thing as appropriate guilt, just as there is appropriate shame.  Being able to tolerate and not be overwhelmed by them is a sign of mental health. (Burgo, 2011)

A very interesting article and talk by Dr Brene Brown on shame, guilt and addiction.

Someone experiencing guilt will say to themselves, “That was a really stupid thing to do. I wasn’t thinking.” In contrast, someone experiencing shame will say, “I’m an idiot. I’m such a loser.” In other words, guilt focuses on behavior while shame focuses on self.



Burgo, J. The difference between guilt and shame. Accessed on 27th August 2013 at http://www.afterpsychotherapy.com/shame-and-guilt/

Li, J., Wang, Q., Fischer, K.W. (2004) The organisation of Chinese shame concepts. Cognition and Emotion 18, p767-797

Reasoner, R. (1992) Pro: You can bring help to failing students. What’s behind self esteem programs? Truth of Trickery? School of Administrator, 49 p 23-24, 26, 30

Wong, Y., Tsai, J. (2007) Cultural models of Shame and Guilt. In J.L. Tracy, R.W. Robins, & J.P. Tangney (Eds.) The self-conscious emotions: Theory and Research (pp 209-223). New York: Guilford Press

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