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Shame and guilt are intense states of emotional distress that begin to develop in childhood and continue to be felt in adulthood.
What is the main difference?
Shame is generally felt about a view of oneself. Whereas guilt is felt about what one has done to another. Remorse can follow either emotion, as I will explain one by one below.
Feelings of shame
While it is often believed that to feel shame, that is a sense of being dishonorable, wrong, humiliated, or foolish, a person has to be “caught in the act” or exposed. However, that type of shame focuses on appearances to others.
In contrast, more importantly, shame can be an internal emotion; no other person even suspects. It has to do with ideals and expectations for ourselves that we develop as we grow up and mature and then falter and do not perceive we are living up to our standards or own expectations.
This feeling can begin quite early, for example, in the attachment bond between a mother and a young child. For example, if the mother blocks her child’s attempt to connect with her with a look of disinterest or disgust, this facial display gives the toddler a feeling of shame.
The toddler may have a feeling not of being wronged, but of being in the wrong, even unloveable. The toddler wants to connect with the mother and senses from her facial expression, her lack of joy and interest.
This one or two-year-old may feel a keen sense of separation from the mother that is unexpected. He or she looks to himself for the cause and feels he is “bad” inside himself. Something is lacking that makes him less important, less worthwhile, and quite vulnerable.
The toddler may withdraw, cry, or even cover his face or hide. These actions and often deep expressions of dissatisfaction with oneself are seen in a drooping mouth, downcast eyes, averting of one’s head.
The toddler or even three-year-old cannot express in words how they feel not only to others but, more importantly, to themselves.
They have not learned the word shame or disgrace. They just feel it.
You may be feeling as a reader, but the mother has wronged the child by not reacting positively to the youngster’s wish for attachment because she is preoccupied with herself and not attuned to her child’s need for connection. This may very well be so.
Or a mother may overreact to a toddler’s typical messiness in her highchair with a look of disgust and disdain. She is unaware of this normal developmental behavior and may be overly tidy herself.
But the child does not read in her mother’s reaction, “she doesn’t understand me.” She perceives there is something wrong with herself. She is ashamed but can’t express it or probably even understand what triggered the emotion: the mother’s behavior.
Children do something called social referencing. They look at the mother or father or caretaker to get a sense of what they should feel. If they don’t see the expression they expect, they look internally to themselves often too harshly as being not merely remiss but awful and may transition to a state of “low arousal” spiraling emotionally downward.
In the extreme of such disappointment, a toddler or child may actually “freeze” in their position. They become immobilized as if imprisoned in their body because their mind is saying how bad they are and how unwanted because of something they lack. This is very painful for the child.
Physiologically, there is a mounting feeling of inhibition of excitement that would be natural to the child. This is due to the reduced activation of dopamine in the limbic forebrain-midbrain circuit of the brain.
Should a child experience these inner sensations frequently, their sense of a core self can be put to the test much too much, hurdling them on the road to low self-esteem. Thus, it is incumbent upon caretakers to be sensitive, responsive, and emotionally approachable when a shame response occurs. This repair is essential for future emotional development.
Then the shame can be digested, so to speak, by the child if the caretaker “stays with” the shamed little one so he can regulate this negative emotion towards oneself. Then reconnection occurs with attendant emotional repair.
The teenager is more articulate, of course, and even philosophical. His growing need for social acceptance makes him vulnerable to feelings of shame if he believes he is inferior or flawed in some way.
Early childhood experiences of shame, as described above, may accumulate in the adolescent’s memory banks, making the teenager more vulnerable to feelings of shame.
Shame can be a motivator for achievement and social adaptation if the teen’s ideals are reasonable, guiding him to move toward meeting those ideals. The problem is that ideals are not the same as goals. They are meant to guide, not define, what is expected of oneself absolutely. So, a shame-prone teen may feel totally unacceptable when he or she is even mildly rejected by his peers or not invited to one party.
Unfortunately, this inner misperception of oneself may lead to avoidance of social situations and then increase the momentum of shame more and more because they are now less available for positive responses.
In chronic situations of shamefulness and low-self esteem, repair of the disruption of one’s feelings about the self may require psychotherapy to revamp the teen’s perspective.
Normal adults hopefully are capable of shame as odd as that may sound. It means the adults monitor their feelings about themselves and can realistically assess if they have, in fact, been dishonorable or even foolish in some way. Then they can try to repair this self-feeling by understanding the source within themselves and make more satisfying connections.
Humiliation would be a good example. An adult goes to a party thinking it’s to be a casual event and wears jeans and a t-shirt, only to discover it’s a formal cocktail party, not a barbecue!
The adult feels embarrassed, foolish, ashamed, and if their self-esteem is wobbly and they can’t muster up a sense of humor for their error, shame may overwhelm them. They could run home and change, they could laugh at themselves, they could apologize for their error, but not if the shame overtakes them.
With adults, we hope that there are standards, morals, self-expectations about how we are perceived not only by others, by ourselves. That comes with maturity. For some adults with personality problems, however, this is not the case.
The self-centered narcissist does not experience shame. It is a deficit, perhaps even in a part of their cerebral cortex. This lack of shame makes it hard for them to sustain healthy relationships. They are quick to fault others for not responding as they wish rather than feel foolish and inferior in any way.
This self-aggrandized individual does not know shame. Shame will not guide him.
Shame is his enemy to be avoided at all costs consciously.
Superiority is the aim of the grandiose individual who misperceives himself in the world. If he is charming, he may get the responses he needs, but his lack of ability to understand why he may not be as favored as he definitely expects is a lack of an ability to feel shame: a personality deficit.
Feelings of guilt
Guilt is a whole other ballpark which is based much more on being able to feel appropriate fault with oneself for behavior or actions towards others. Again, it develops with maturity and is taught with good caretaking. We need to, once again, look at each developmental stage.
The toddler doesn’t quite understand guilt internally. They know when they did the wrong thing because they were caught and reprimanded. Then because it’s natural to want to please caretakers, they begin to feel “found out.”
Shame, of course, may accompany the bare beginnings of guilt, but a full course of guilt comes with language development. The parent teaches the child verbally and by role modeling what is considered right and wrong.
The four-year-old preschooler learns that sharing is good. But the child may covet the toy for himself for an hour! When he is tattled on, he hopefully feels guilty because he knows he did not care about sharing with another and hurt another’s feelings. (And the other kid is mad!)
Thus, the capacity for empathy comes into play, which slowly is developing around ages three and four as the child becomes much more aware of other’s feelings, intentions, wishes, and beliefs.
Then if they sneak and take all the Halloween candy from their siblings and hide it under their bed, they feel guilty (and have an upset stomach!)
Guilt must be well developed to progress from early to middle to late adolescence. Trusting someone incapable of guilt is going to lead to serious relationship trouble. They can’t accept fault or blame because they don’t feel it.
More likely, however, in maturing teens, guilt presses hard on them because they are experiencing a well-developed conscience that has been emerging over their younger years.
Conscience is essential for morality to be upheld. It is based on an inner set of beliefs about what is right and wrong behavior or thoughts about others.
If you feel you have wronged your friend by repeatedly forgetting dates and appointments, even if they are unimaginably still your friend because they like you for lots of other reasons, you should feel guilty for disregarding the other’s needs and schedule and hop on the bandwagon with your own accountability.
Guilt is relieved by apologizing, asking for another chance to redress one’s wrong, and correcting your mistakes in the future. This is how guilt is repaired and regulated.
If you only act guilty for lying as an adult when you are caught, something’s amiss with your moral standards with regard to a belief in honesty. Then guilt is not well developed at all by an adult, and they will soon learn the consequences in failed relationships.
Guilt requires moral responsibility and regard for others. This may sound close to shame but remember that shame is about feelings of self-worth and feelings of inferiority and dishonor. In contrast, guilt is more about behavior toward others, as simple as following rules.
If you are speeding and go past a stop sign, hopefully, you feel guilty even if a policeman doesn’t catch you and give you a ticket for $100 plus points on your license.
Why? Because you care about not only your rush to get somewhere but the safety of others. Guilt is required for safe driving.
Your conscience is on full alert because you put others in danger. If indeed you hurt another in a car accident, guilt is appropriate if it is your fault. You redress the wrong by taking steps to give and get insurance information, but of course, first you ask the person not at fault whose fender you crushed, “How are you doing?”
Guilt is more easily addressed than shame because it involves another you can correct your behavior with. Shame is more of an internal belief about one’s worth. Surely, you can feel both, even in a car accident. But more likely, that leads to guilt.
What about remorse?
Remorse is defined generally as deep regret for a wrong committed. It follows from guilt if you are an emotionally healthy person.
Problematic, however, is that narcissist I mentioned earlier who does not understand remorse. Even worse, is the sociopath or psychopath who is prone to end up in prison because their brain literally does not have a remorse ‘valve.’
It has been discovered that many of such prisoners due not respond to punishment due to a brain defect in their cerebral cortex, a serious discovery for the workings of our prison system as well as our minds.
Some people argue that this is a disability, a brain disease, and thus we may ask a jury, should they be prosecuted?
I’ll leave that one up to you, but remorse is learned from early on when the child is taught to redress their wrongs. This is learned and then felt on one’s own.
The shame and guilt-prone child and teen easily feel remorse just as does the adult. They make amends and seek to do a better job the next time. Remorse leads to actions to pay for one’s error in some way whether it’s verbal or even monetary.
A lack of remorse is a serious personality defect. Once again, we are looking at a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder. There is no deep regret, repentance, or penitence. To be even more specific, regret may lead to avoidance of future punishment, so this is a slippery slope of whether the person actually feels guilty or just wants to avoid trouble.
But true remorse comes with an acceptance of the pain you have caused others for your verbal or physical actions. This is the person we want as our friend and lover.