Before we define the differences between guilt and shame, it is perhaps prudent for us to iron out the difference between shame and its close counterpart, embarrassment. Shame is what we feel when we, or others have done something morally wrong. Unlike embarrassment, it can also be attached to a thought or action that others do not know about or cannot see. Embarrassment can be potent, but shame can perhaps be classified as a deeper feeling, as it relates to our moral compass and not just our outward image or social character.
We feel shame because we pit our own thoughts and actions against our moral standards and realise that they do not match up or fall short. However, if we do not notice that our actions are morally wrong, we can be made to notice or, in other words, “shamed”. If people have made us notice, but we still do not feel shameful, then we are said to have “no shame” or are “shameless”. When we feel shame, it does not always have to be morally related; it can be felt when we do not have something, often a material good, that others have. We can also feel shame on behalf of someone else, or share in someone’s shame, especially if that person is someone you are very familiar with.
The word “shame” originates from the phrase “to cover”. The signs of shame include downcast eyes, slumped shoulders, and perhaps a hand covering the eyes. Others may feel a sense of warmth or even experience mental confusion or paralysis. These signs can convey remorse and inspire pity, but some of us may choose to keep our shame a secret, because shame itself can be shameful, or, to be precise, embarrassing. Those who have a low self-esteem are often harder on themselves and hence more likely to feel shame. They may defend themselves against this shame they feel by blaming the person who caused their shame, but this will only result in greater shame and lower self-esteem. In fact, feeling an overwhelming sense of shame can be destructive, although feeling a mild to moderate sense of shame is necessary in helping us stay in tune with our moral compasses.
Shame and guilt should not be confused with each other, as shame pertains to a person, while guilt pertains to an action or several actions. Put simply, feeling shameful is saying “I am bad”, while feeling guilty is saying “I did something bad”. Shame is what you feel when you think you have fallen short of society’s moral standards, but guilt is what you feel when you think you have fallen short of your own moral standards. It is thus alright to feel guilty about an action or thought that most of society approves of.
The reason why we often confuse shame with guilt and guilt with shame is because they are often felt together, even though they are separate emotions. Shame is egodystonic; it does not agree with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego. In fact, experiencing high levels of shame is associated with poor psychological functioning. This is why eating disorders and quite a number of sexual disorders are known as disorders of shame, while narcissism can be regarded as a person’s defence against shame. Unlike shame, guilt is egosyntonic; it is aligned with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego. Unless it is left to grow and linger, it is often not related to poor psychological functioning. It could even be correlated with good psychological functioning.
Since people with low self-esteem are more likely to feel shameful, it is not surprising that people with high self-esteem are more prone to feeling guilty.
Source material from Psychology Today