Guilt and Shame: The One We Need and the One We Don’t

The impacts of guilt and shame have been a consistent topic in the therapy room. Clients, finding themselves tossed and turned by the waves of these emotions, have reported increased levels of anxiety and depression, the symptoms of which often leads to a paralyzing sense of immovability. The guilt/shame cycle has a cunning way of making our brain fire in all directions while leaving us physically in place. We want to be good people and yet we don’t often feel like we are capable enough to get there. To combat this, there is a temptation to clump both emotions together, writing them off as purely negative. We aim our scope at the pair, hoping to feel better and be better. So, we start with behavior modification, working to improve with the expectation that we’ll eventually feel that way on the inside. Even though our heart is the right place, this hardly ever works. We lose the weight, and still feel unattractive, we ask the girl out and still feel lonely. Thought of as two sides of the same coin, we try and fix one while neglecting the implications of the other.

What if, instead, we embraced their nuance. Acknowledging the merits of guilt while addressing the impact of shame. In a 2004 neurobiological study, researchers found that participants who reported feeling shame exhibited activity in a different part of the brain than those who reported feeling guilt.[1] The right temporal regions of the brain lit up when the participant felt shame and embarrassment while the left temporal regions lit up when the participants felt guilt and moral failure. The brain processes these two feelings differently.

The difference here seems to focus on the two emotions relationship with the external world. Guilt focuses on the internal repercussions of our actions while shame finds its place in our internal identity formation. Guilt has far more to do with morality than shame.[2] Guilt is the part of our brain that sparks when we have harmed someone else or have broken a social expectation. Shame, on the other hand, operates relatively irrespective of external forces. Shame ignites when we begin to adopt that moral failure as our own.

Guilt says I made a mistake while shame says, I am a mistake.

We need guilt. Although hardly a pleasant feeling, guilt keeps us from hurting other people and breaking the rules. It is our internal moral compass, pushing us toward loving interactions and positive social experiences. A 2017 study of brain functioning found that those who have committed violent crime showed markedly less brain activity in their left temporal lobe (the part of the brain that is used to emit guilt) when compared to their non-violent participants.[3] It is not guilt that we should be looking to do away with, it is shame.

Shame, the more complex emotion, doesn’t keep us from failing, it tells us we’re a failure. Shame leaves us stuck, endlessly looping between what others might think and what we think of ourselves.[4] It creates a particular self-belief statement that does nothing to push us toward moral good or reconciliation. Instead, it keeps us away from the very thing we need, connection and vulnerability. Shame has been proven to “promote avoidant behaviors” and keep us from what we love and those we love.[5]

Let’s say, for example, we’re about to go on a first interview for a position we’ve had our heart set on. The interviews go well enough, discussing our qualifications and relevant past experiences. The next day we get a call, thank you for coming in. However, upon reflection, we’ve decided to go in another direction. Guilt asks, how could I have done that better? What do I need to change for next time? Shame says wow, I must not be a good fit for this career. I must not be very qualified. Now let’s consider for a moment that another job opportunity comes up. Shame begs us to remain safe, it’s best not to even apply, remember how unqualified you are.

Disguised in the cloak of emotional safety, shame works in the recesses of our minds to keep us from vulnerable risk.

Why go for that job if I’m unqualified? Why work harder if I’m a failure? Why open myself up if I’m unlovable? The slippery slope of shame starts with pain and ends in apathy. We aren’t born with shame; it’s grown over time. Think for a moment about those shame statements we all too often default to. Where did you first learn that you were unlovable? Where did you first learn that you weren’t good enough? Typically, it’s born through a moment or series of experiences that caused a level of pain that you hadn’t yet felt. The brain was pushed into emotional overdrive and it began to say, never again. Never again will I allow myself to go there. After all, if I already believe I’m a failure, any failure after that would just be a confirmation.

The brain so desperately wants to keep us from being emotionally caught off guard that it forms a way of thinking of itself to keep us protected. The trick here is that you can’t be both emotionally safe and emotionally open at the same time. Openness means risk and risk takes vulnerability. If, even for a moment, we quieted the voices of shame and leaned into vulnerability, we might just actually move.           

[1] Takahashi H, Yahata N, Koeda M, Matsuda T, Asai K, Okubo Y. Brain activation associated with evaluative processes of guilt and embarrassment: an fMRI study, NeuroImage, 2004, vol. 23 (pg. 967-74)

[2] Emde RN, Oppenheim D. Tangney JP, Fischer KW. Shame, guilt and the oedipal drama: developmental considerations concerning morality and the referencing of critical others, Self-conscious Emotions: The Psychology of Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment, and Pride, 1995New York, NYThe Guilford Press (pg. 413-36)

[3] Korponay C, Pujara, MS, Deming P, Philippi CL, Decety J, Kosson, DS, Kiehl, KA, & Koenigs M. (2017) Impulsive-antisocial psychopathic traits linked to increased volume and functional connectivity within prefrontal cortex. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12, 169-1178.

[4] Goffman, E. (1955). On face-work: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction. Psychiatry:

Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 18, 213–231.

[5] Keltner, D., & Buswell, B. N. (1997). Embarrassment: Its distinct form and appeasement functions. Psychological Bulletin, 122, 250–270.

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