Psychologists Highlight The Difference Between Guilt And Shame

Researchers discuss the differences between the often confused emotions of guilt, shame, and embarrassment.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 5, 2022

A new study published in Culture and Psychology distinguishes between commonly interchanged emotions of guilt, shame, and embarrassment. The research argues that understanding where each of them, especially shame, stems from can help convert maladaptive outcomes into positive ones.

I recently spoke to psychologists Regitze Lyhne and Brady Wagoner to understand how and why these emotions get triggered. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of experienced shame, how did you study it, and what did you find?

During my first author's MA program internship, working with adolescents who had been sexually or physically abused, I (Regitze) experienced many of the girls referred negatively to themselves and they seemed to have some deep, general feeling of inadequacy.

This made me wonder about what makes people in general feel inadequate, worthless, and almost angry toward themselves.

Does this appear in some people as a function of their personalities? Or is the experience more about the normative expectations put on them? How is shame experienced and when?

These questions led to the examination of how and when shame is experienced today, and what role cultural and social tendencies play in it.

The method used in the study is an open-end questionnaire. The main section of the questionnaire asked participants to describe:

  1. The last situation where they experienced shame
  2. And, the last situation where they believed they observed another person experience shame

Through Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, we uncovered four themes related to the experience of shame:

  1. Expectations
  2. Self-control
  3. Feeling exposed
  4. Bodily reactions and empathy

The first three are referring to the general experience of shame.

A person's perception of normative expectations in a situation followed by a "break" of these is a key feature in their feeling of shame.

This break is often the result of some kind of loss of self-control, which leads to feelings of being exposed.

The last theme refers to reactions described in the participants' accounts of observing shame in others; here, they focused on visible, bodily reactions (such as blushing) and empathy; by seeing the situation from their perspective.

What would you consider an important distinction between shame and embarrassment?

Shame is a painful, self-conscious emotion that carries information about how we evaluate ourselves in a social situation.

Shame and guilt have been distinguished by their link to the self, where guilt is more concerned with behavior whereas shame is more linked to the self.

Similarly, embarrassment may be phenomenologically alike, yet a public self representation must be activated for this emotion to appear. Moreover, embarrassment often occurs in situations where no one was responsible for some action to occur, whereas guilt and shame are linked with actions caused by the individual.

Furthermore, situations causing embarrassment are often easily forgotten due to the public exposure, whereas shameful experiences are often more intense in that they more directly involve the self.

The three negative self-conscious emotions can be difficult to sharply distinguish in that they all occur on the grounds of social, moral, and normative experiences of a situation at hand, yet they are typically distinguished in terms of the degree to which they involve the public and private self.

Your research talks about how shame is often viewed as a maladaptive emotion that can lead to destructive reactions and outcomes. Could you please provide an example of what these behaviors may look like?

Tangney and Dearing (2002) discuss this in their book Shame and Guilt, and they describe that shame is concerning how we evaluate ourselves, as opposed to guilt, where we evaluate our actions — which does not promote a constructive and compassionate response or change in behavior, but rather a desire to hide or escape from the situation, as a response to a sudden awareness of one's "flawed self."

Thomas and colleagues (2011) examine humiliated fury; a term referring to a way of reacting to an experience of shame, where the individual displays anger as a reaction to the social threat that shame composes, and it thus functions as self-regulation, i.e., a way to handle the painful emotion.

Why is the emotion of shame so personal and dependent on a person's internal character?

The study showed how one's perception of cultural expectations in a situation and its importance to the self determines how your emotional response will be.

Some participants described feelings of shame in relation to getting a below average grade whereas this situation might not elicit shame in other people.

This brings us back to the Stoic idea of emotions as essentially interpretations of a situation. We aimed to further develop this insight with a relational theory of self and others, building on classic sources such as William James and George Herbert Mead.

Please could you explain the importance of cultural norms in experiences of shame?

Shame is a self-conscious emotion that guides us to evaluate ourselves and our way of acting in different contexts. What is perceived as "morally right" in a situation differs from one social/cultural context to another, such as shame regarding a below-average grade, as mentioned above.

As Burkitt (2014) explains, we have a feeling of our perceptions, experiences, and understandings as mine. They constitute our perception of reality, which can lead us to forget that other people might not experience, feel, or think the same way.

Shame and emotions are not private inner states emerging from some fixed core. Instead, they emerge in the social interactions in our everyday life, and these encounters make sense to us in the light of personal history, social expectations, and norms.

What is the idea the paper is referring to when it speaks about the 'positional triangle'?

This is an approach for analyzing dynamic interactions, in which there are conflicts over the interpretation of rights and duties.

This idea comes from Rom Harré (2012), who describes positioning as composed by three characteristics:

  1. Speech or other acts
  2. Storyline
  3. Positions

If one changes, the other ones change as well.

A participant in the study talked about suicide with a group of friends, where the narrative was "suicide is a selfish act."

Suddenly the participant realized that one of the people in the room had tried to commit suicide, thus changing the general positioning to feeling self-critical and shameful for not being more sensitive about the topic.

Thus, the individual changes their own allocation of rights and duties.

What is the mereological fallacy and why do people often fall into it?

The mereological fallacy refers to confusing a part for the whole.

An example of this could be when seeing a person blush and immediately interpreting the observed person's emotional state as shame.

That way you interpret a whole situation out of context by only including one aspect; the visible expression.

A reason why people might do this could be that expressions are visible for other people to see, making it an easy way of interpreting a situation and the emotional states of other people involved in it. However, concluding blushing as an expression of shame in a situation entails knowledge about the entire context of the interaction at hand.

What thought processes are individuals going through when they feel inclined to be judgmental?

Humans are social beings and we depend on others for survival. We are all trying to find a place in our social contexts, and we do this from a perception of what expectations are at stake in different situations.

We use self-control to stay within the frame of expectations, and when we fail to live up to these, we might feel shameful, which comprises an act of judgment towards ourselves: "Ugh, I should have known about this, I am so stupid."

This judgment can also be projected towards people around us, when we experience that others might not live up to the expectations we perceive to be in a context.

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

An interesting finding was that the accounts of observed shame were often thematically identical to one's own shame experience. If one focused on getting good grades in their own experience of shame, this topic of appearance was also a key feature in their observation of shame in other people.

Moreover, the discussion of shame as maladaptive was also nuanced through this study.

Though an individual might react to shame by wanting to hide, self-criticize, or through anger, this negative attitude toward oneself and own actions need not be entirely negative in outcome.

It can lead the individual towards constructive reflections about oneself. This was seen by a few participants in this study.