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The feeling of guilt stems from the belief that you should have behaved, thought or felt differently. Guilt involves evaluating a specific, chosen and controllable behavior or expression as wrong (e.g. if only I did not do that,  we would still be together). It relates to your right/wrong, moral/immoral inner compass.  When these standards are being violated and consequences are negative, it causes you to feel guilty. The attribution is thus more external towards the situation and choices rather than what it means about you for doing it. In other words, the behavior /transgression were bad but that does not mean you are a bad person, which is what shame is.

With shame the attribution is to internal to stable characteristics of the self. The transgression is perceived as result of whom the person is. The common thought is thus ,for example, not if only I did not do  it or  I should have done it, but if only I was not X or I was a different person.The strong negative feelings of shame have consequences on the self- esteem. There is a sense of unworthiness, inferiority, inadequacy, incompetency and deviance.

In addition, guilt refers to the particular situation and is not over-generalized or very influential on other areas and aspects of one’s life. Shame, on the other hand, surpasses a specific situation, a changeable context and behavior to influencing all areas and aspects of one’s life.

When feeling guilt there is clear idea that there was control on the situation, but it was misused, a mistake was made or the right path was not chosen. Feelings of guilt can therefore initiate and motivate problem solving actions to confess, express regret, take responsibility, mend bridges, repair consequences, compensate, improve and create more positive outcomes. The debilitating feelings of shame, however, can make one become more self-consciousness, self-doubting and highly alert to other’s reactions and evaluations.  It can lead to withdraw from others (i.e. feeling undeserving of love and belonging and/or escape from criticism, rejection and disapproval) and engage in unhelpful behaviors.

There is more avoidance, passivity and escapism than motivation, a need to be active, “set things right”, amend the relationships that comes from guilt.  Guilt thus can improve our relationships, communication and connectedness, whereas shame leads to isolation, loss of support and resources. To lessen the feelings of shame, one might also attempt to change some aspect of the self. The effects is more long enduring whereas with guilt it passes more easily once the consequences were dealt with.

Experiencing of guilt conveys a sense of control, mastering and hope for the future, because the situation is attributed to the behavior, thus a changeable and controllable cause. There is  recognition of the fact that one can learn from the negative consequence; one has a free choice and ability to forgive oneself; and the ability to prevent it from reoccurring in the future. Shame promotes a sense of lack of control and powerlessness about the future. The notion of a change in the future seems bleak if the core of the problem is due to whom you are and not the behavior choice of level of effort invested.

Shame may be apparent in nonverbal behavior such as fidgeting, limited eye contact, blushing, inability to speak, lowered body posture as in to hide self or make the body smaller etc. Psychologically it can also be manifested depression, social anxiety, lack of intimacy, ruminations, as well as, exaggeration, defensiveness, annoyance and irritability.  The anger is not only directed towards the self, but can also be expressed towards, which can exacerbates conflict and raise shame levels more. The psychological and social consequences of shame are therefore more detrimental than the impact that guilt has because guilt has more adaptive and beneficial aspects.

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Gausel, N., & Leach, C. W. (2011). Concern for self-image and social image in the management of moral failure: Rethinking shame. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 41, 468–478.

Orth, U., Berking, M., & Burkhardt, S. (2006). Self-conscious emotions and depression: Rumination explains why shame, but not guilt, is maladaptive. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 1608-1619.

Tracy, J. L., Robins, R. W., & Tangney, J. P. (Eds.). (2007). The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

de Hooge, I. E., Nelissen, R. M. A., Breugelmans, S. M., & Zeelenberg, M. (2011). What is moral about guilt?Acting “prosocially” at the disadvantage of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100,3, 462-473.

Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and guilt. New York, NY: Guildford Press.

Kubany, E. S. ,& Watson, S. B. .(2003). Guilt: Elaboration of a Multidimensional Model. The Psychological Record, 53, 1, 51–90.

 

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