Guilt vs. Shame:
What’s the Difference, Really?
When we’re struggling with addiction—whether it’s alcohol, drugs, pornography, food, sex, or anything else—what stops us from seeking help? What drives us into a spiral of depression? The answer is usually guilt, shame, or both.
At first glance, “guilt” and “shame” seem to be more or less interchangeable. We’ve done something wrong, and we feel bad for it. But there are subtle differences—differences that can point us toward a way out of the low point in which we find ourselves.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is generally tied to a specific act or series of acts: We have done something that has brought harm or disappointment to another person.
Guilt can be:
- Intentional, like insulting someone.
- Unintentional, like dinging someone’s car in a parking lot.
- A sin of commission—carrying on an extramarital affair, for example.
- A sin of omission, like not being present enough in the lives of one’s spouse or children.
But either way, we’ve wronged someone, and we feel bad about it.
And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we should feel bad about some of the things we do! Not caring about the harm we do to others is literally part of the clinical definition of a sociopath.
When you think about it, guilt is our conscience’s way of recognizing bad behavior and urging us to atone.
Yes, it’s possible to carry too much guilt with us, and to carry it for too long.
That said, though, there is a certain utility to guilt, in the sense that remembering the guilty feelings spawned by an act of wrongdoing can keep us from committing that act again.
What is Shame?
Shame is different. It, too, can be tied to a specific act, whether it’s forgetting an anniversary, committing adultery, or indulging in an addiction. But very often, shame goes deeper—it makes us feel that not only have we done a bad deed, we are bad people deep down for having done so.
“Only a bad husband would forget an anniversary,” the voices in our heads tell us. Or, “Only a weak person would be unable to break free of painkillers.” And on and on and on.
And that’s not useful, either to ourselves or to the people we’ve hurt. When feelings of shame become strong enough, we start feeling unworthy of forgiveness or redemption—which means we’re less likely to even offer an apology or atonement in the first place.
The embarrassment of our failing might be so great we can’t bring ourselves to talk about it with a loved one, a counselor, or even a priest. And without that help we so desperately need, we only spiral further into depression and self-loathing.
No One Is Unredeemable
We don’t need to feel that one bad act, or even several bad acts, render us evil and unredeemable. “God don’t make no junk” isn’t just a saying—it’s something God told us Himself.
And while God knows that we are imperfect, and that we will sometimes stray from the righteous path—“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says Romans 3:23—the path to redemption is always open.
Forgiveness Is Possible
So if God has told us forgiveness is possible, and we’re worthy of it, who are we to argue?
If you’ve hurt someone, whether through action or inaction, acknowledge it. Own up to it. And yes, feel some guilt over it—however much guilt it takes to muster the courage to apologize and atone.
But once you’ve done that, allow yourself to feel the forgiveness and redemption that God has offered to all of us.
Don’t let shame stand between you and that redemption. Don’t work so hard to convince yourself you’re a terrible person that you declare yourself ineligible for forgiveness. A person who has internalized shame has taken a lonely road that only leads to further isolation, from loved ones and God alike. But a person willing to own up to his guilt and atone for it has a chance to rise above that hurtful act and emerge renewed into a more fulfilling, compassionate, and Christlike life.
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