July 7, 2010: First of all. . .

. . . what’s the difference between shame and guilt? And does it matter?

A story: When I first taught English to deaf high school students, one of the first things we did was work on feelings vocabulary, i.e. words and their respective signs. To connect the word and the sign for “Frustrated” was especially appreciated, as I recall! (An ironical Fun Fact to Know and Tell: the sign for “Frustrated” is a flipping gesture with your entire hand, palm side out, so that your splayed fingers flip up and cover your mouth.)

So as I sit here on a steamy, summer day contemplating the usual: systemic racism, our criminal justice system, and climate change (in the midst of this heat wave, especially the latter!), part of me knows that a precise understanding of word and meaning is useful, part of me doesn’t want to get bogged down.

So for what it’s worth: guilt is about “remorseful awareness” and shame is about “the painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt [hmm], embarrassment, unworthiness or disgrace.”

Here’s what I make of those culled definitions (thank you, Random House Dictionary): Guilt is something you come up over time and feel terrible about. Shame is in-the-moment, reactive, makes you cringe, get red-faced, stammer. Involuntary, maybe? Hard-wired, maybe?

Why am I writing about this? Because I’m beginning to think that shame plays a huge role in our lives. In MY life. And that if I want to really effect change in the Ghandian sense, I need to look at this thing.

So I will. All this month.

Join the Conversation


  1. So guilt is kind of an intellectual reaction to something we have done, and shame is the emotional response to that situation, which no amount of reasoning and rationalization does much to allay? I think my upbringing was all about the shame — embarrassment at social faux pas, mistakes — and not too much about guilt — which seems to require some kind of deeper moral analysis. Naturally, given my experience, I think shame is much the stronger influence on behavior. One runs into arguments that without religion (10 commandments-type religion), everybody would just run amok, but there’s still that shame keeping us in line.

  2. I have always thought of guilt as an internal experience that you can have all by yourself, and shame as a response to others knowing about whatever it is. They don’t have to actually know it; you can feel the shame component just imagining that others are aware of your regrettable act…and feel the way you feel about it.
    I think I’ve had a sense of shame – fear of rejection, hostility, scorn, and so on, about things I haven’t truly felt guilty about.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.