The Difference between Shame and Guilt


"Guilt says I've done something wrong; shame says there is something wrong with me.

Guilt says I've made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake.

Guilt says what did was not good; shame says I am no good."

Bradshaw (1988).

With guilt, the response is a desire for atonement, to make amends, to correct a mistake, or heal a hurt.

With shame, there is just painful feelings of depression, alienation, self-doubt, loneliness, isolation, paranoia, compulsive disorders, perfectionism, inferiority, inadequacy, failure, helplessness, hopelessness, narcissism. "Shame is a sickness of the soul. It is the most poignant experience of the self by the self, whether felt in humiliation or cowardice, or in a sense of failure to cope successfully with a challenge. Shame is a wound felt from the inside, dividing us both from ourselves and from one another." Kaufman (1996).

"Shame on you!" To use such discouraging words is abusive.

When we feel unbearable shame, the response often is violence, drug abuse, battering, harassment, incest. We feel ashamed of our bodies, which leads to eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia, compulsions, workaholism, in an effort to block out these feelings of worthlessness. The prevalence of these in our society indicates that something is drastically wrong. All too often I hear the refrain of parents to children, or bosses to workers, if you don't do as I say, or be as I want you to be, then shame on you, and will abandon you. We no longer care about each other.

One problem is the logic. We live in a winner take all society. Only one winner, lots of losers.


Bradshaw, John (1988). "Bradshaw on: The Family" Health Communications:Deerfield Beach, FL. Cavanagh, Michael E. (1982) "The Counseling Experience," Brooks/Cole:Monterey, CA.
Kaufman, Gershen (1996). "The Psychology of Shame, 2nd Ed.," Springer Pub:NY.

Last updated 23 May 1999

Copyright © 1998-9 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.


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