Embracing guilt and shame

You can befriend all of your emotions.

In my post on befriending your anger, I re-framed anger as a necessary emotion that supports you in developing and maintaining your healthy self image. Now, let’s look at the emotion that I call anger’s friend or partner: shame.

I envision anger as the sentry that calmly walks the perimeter of your self-image and watches out for any challenges to what you value or to your sense of self. I envision shame as a related sentry emotion that turns inward and watches you and your behaviors so that you don’t unnecessarily challenge, offend against, or wound others.

When it’s working well, your shame helps you become a stand-up person who follows an inner code of ethics and honor — in regard to other people, certainly, but also in regard to yourself. And thankfully, when you and your shame are working well together, it won’t torment you; it will support you.

As I developed my empathic theory of emotions, I continually tripped over competing definitions of guilt and shame, and it seemed that everywhere I looked, people were defining these two words differently — and sometimes in ways that directly contradicted each other. I got really fed up, so I went to a dictionary to see what was up.

Let’s clear up this confusion before we delve more deeply into this exquisite and necessary emotion. This piece is an excerpt from my book The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You.

Guilt and Shame: What’s the difference?

Book and audiobook covers for The Language of EmotionsIn my early teens, I read a popular self-help book that branded guilt and shame as “useless” emotions. The book presented the idea that we’re all perfect, and therefore shouldn’t ever be guilt-ridden or ashamed of anything we do. That idea seemed very strange to me, so I went to the dictionary and looked up the meaning of guiltless and shameless and found that neither state was anything to celebrate.

To be guiltless means to be free of mark or experience, as if you’re a blank slate. It’s not a sign of intelligence or growth, because guiltlessness exists only in people who have not yet lived.

To be shameless means to be senseless, uncouth, and impudent. It’s a sign of being out of control, out of touch, and exceedingly self-absorbed; therefore, shamelessness lives only in people who don’t have any relational skills. Both states — guiltlessness and shamelessness — helped me understand the essential value of guilt and shame.

Is guilt an emotion?

Fascinatingly, in a dictionary definition, guilt isn’t even an emotional state at all — it’s simply the knowledge and acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Guilt is a state of circumstance: you’re either guilty or not guilty in relation to the legal or moral code you value.

You cannot feel guilty, because guilt is a concrete state — not an emotional one! Your feelings are irrelevant; if you did something wrong, you’re guilty, and it doesn’t matter if you’re happy, angry, fearful, or depressed about it. When you haven’t done something wrong, you’re not guilty.

Feelings don’t enter into the equation at all. The only way you could possibly ever feel guilty is if you don’t quite remember committing an offense (“I feel like I might be guilty, but I’m not sure.”). No, what you feel is shame.

Guilt is a factual state; shame is an emotion.

What is shame?

Shame is the natural emotional consequence of guilt and wrongdoing. When your shame is welcomed into your psyche, its powerful heat and intensity will restore your boundary when you’ve broken it yourself. However, most of us don’t welcome shame into our lives; we obscure it by saying “I feel guilty” instead of “I feel ashamed,” which speaks volumes about our current inability to identify and acknowledge our guilt, channel our appropriate shame, and make amends.

This is unfortunate because when we don’t welcome and honor our free-flowing and necessary shame, we cannot moderate our own behavior. We’ll continually do things we know are wrong, and we won’t have the strength to stop ourselves. In our never-ending shamelessness, we’ll offend and offend and offend without pause – we’ll always be guilty because nothing will wake us to our effect on the world.

If we continue to use the incorrect statement, “I feel guilty,” we’ll be unable to right our wrongs, amend our behaviors, or discover what our shame is trying to tell us – which means we’ll be unable to experience contentment (which has a special relationship with shame). If we don’t come out and correctly state, “I’m ashamed of myself,” we’ll never improve. I’ll say it again before we go deeper: guilt is a factual state, not an emotional one. You’re either guilty or not guilty. If you’re not guilty, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. However, if you are guilty, and you want to know what to do about the fact of your guilt, then you’ve got to embrace the information shame brings to you.

(From chapter 14 in The Language of Emotions)

Embracing shame as your ally

Let’s look at the specific gifts and skills that shame brings to you.

SHAME: Restoring Integrity

GIFTS: Atonement ~ Integrity ~ Conscience ~ Self-respect ~ Behavioral change

WHAT YOUR SHAME DOES: Shame arises to help you moderate your behavior and make sure that you don’t hurt, embarrass, destabilize, or dehumanize yourself or others. Shame is a tricky emotion, because most of us learned about shame by being shamed.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE: The healing practice for shame is to root out inauthentic and applied shaming messages, and to encourage authentic and appropriate shame (and remorse) in yourself and others.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: Whose ethics and values have been disrespected? What must be made right?

Though many people suggest that shame is primarily unhealthy, it is in fact a crucial social emotion, and it’s directly connected to the empathic aspect of Concern for Others (see The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy). Shame development is essential for the development of empathy, and it’s the primary emotion that makes you honorable and capable of being a worthy relationship partner, colleague, and person.

Shame is certainly an emotion that can overwhelm you, but when you can get into a healthy empathic relationship to it, shame can be your best friend. Shame can help you live up to your internal moral code so that you can take excellent care of yourself.

Shame can also make you very sensitive socially, so that you’ll be able to stop yourself (gently and appropriately) before you say or do something wrong. Your shame will also help you make amends if you realize that you’ve hurt someone, stuck your foot in your mouth, or broken a social rule.

How well are you using the gifts of shame?

The statements below relate to the gifts of shame. How true are these statements for you?

  • I have a fairly easy time changing problem behaviors or old habits
  • When I make a social blunder, I have an easy time apologizing and correcting myself
  • I am able to ask for help and support from others
  • I can manage my intense emotions without attacking others
  • I live up to my promises (or I make new agreements if I can’t live up to them)

The Gifts of Shame. These statements may seem to relate to behavioral maturity (and they do), but they’re also the gifts of shame — which help you monitor and modify your behavior. Interestingly, when your shame is working gracefully, you won’t feel it as shame. Instead, you’ll just behave in a way that makes you feel comfortable and proud of yourself.

For instance, you’ll floss because you like clean teeth (and not because you’ve been shamed into obsessive dental hygiene), you’ll avoid theft and abusiveness because they don’t feel right (and not because you’ve been shamed or terrorized out of them), and you’ll manage your intense emotions skillfully because you respect the basic human rights of others.

Though many of us have a very troubling relationship with shame because it was applied to us as punishment when we were young, shame is absolutely crucial for your social health and well-being.

An update on shame

I was wrong: I thought that there were two kinds of shame when I wrote The Language of Emotions, authentic versus inauthentic, appropriate versus inappropriate, and so forth, but I was wrong.

Shame is never inauthentic or inappropriate

In the DEI community, we’ve become aware in the past couple of years that shame itself is never inauthentic, foreign, or inappropriate. The shame is always doing its job; it’s always purposeful, valid, and meaningful. 
It’s the shaming message or the contract that creates the problem. Shame helps us live up to the morals and ethics we’ve agreed to, so the work is not to get shame to shut up or go away. It’s to make sure that our morals, ethics, and agreements are current, appropriate, and realistic.
The work is to give our shame marvelous and healing messages to work with, instead of filling its to-do-list with awful ideas and gruesome contracts.
If shame is working on an abusive message or contract, it will look abusive. But it’s not! It’s just doing its proper work in the psyche. Our job as loving friends of shame is to make sure that it isn’t forced to do horrible jobs based on outdated, unrealistic, inappropriate, or abusive ideas.

We can choose how we deal with shame

Another piece that’s become clear to me: Even when shaming messages are forced onto us, we have choices about how we carry them. We may ingest them completely, or we may put them on like a mask when we have to. Most kids learn to behave in order to get what they need, even though they know that many of the shaming messages are pointless and unfair.
We also pick and choose which parts of shaming messages we’ll adhere to. For instance, you can find two people who were abused by the same person over the same period of time, and who come away with entirely different shaming messages. Some of the damaging messages that one person agreed to may sound like nonsense to the other person, and vice versa.
We’re individuals. We’re not blank slates that other people write upon. Even during abuse or trauma, we have agency. And of course, the Burning Contracts practice gives us the agency to destroy or renegotiate any shaming message or ideas, and create new approaches that work.
We’ve been working to rewrite and reframe our new understanding of shame, and the revised version of The Language of Emotions shares that new information!
I want you to be aware of our newer and deeper understanding of shame.
Onward and forward, friends of shame!

Related post: A supportive way to work with your shame


25 Responses

  1. Kaitlyn
    | Reply

    Brilliant! I really appreciate the definition of guilt and shame. So well put.

  2. Ini
    | Reply

    You’ve made it very clear Karla. For example, I still feel shame about something I did a long time ago, because I thought it was normal behaviour for a woman. But it was not an idea of my own. Thinking back I never felt guilt but always shame and some anger, also because of the reaction I got then. I should have protected pure self, staying by my own feelings. I see and understand that more clearly now than ever. Thank you again for getting me so alert about the nuance refining in this kind of feelings. I really love it, and it makes me to understand myself better than ever.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Ini! Our emotions can be such amazing guides, and I’ve found that they’ll continually remind me about what’s important, and how I want to behave in each moment. Thank you, emotions!

  3. Patricia
    | Reply

    Hi Karla, I have just read some new books concerning recent studies about shame, about the difficulties that arise when we are “Too ashamed” to live the vulnerability beneath it.While I find that it all was interesting, and rang extremely true for me, I could not help but be grateful that I had read your books first. It has been so helpful to “become friends” with shame, to appreciate it’s purpose and value, as opposed to seeing it as yet another bully I need to avoid, another part of me to hate on. The books I have read said that studies have found that there “is no such thing as good shame”. I can not accept that. I find that your description of shame/toxic shame gives a more workable way to know this very powerful emotion. I have spent a lifetime wondering about my emotions, having difficulties with regulation. It seems that your books, more than any other, have truly led me to a way, a real way, to relate to them, as opposed to fight them off. Ultimately, I have found that before all else, learning to see them as acceptable and valuable aspects of myself, has helped me to prepare for the next step, learning how to feel them, tolerate them, and to use the info they provide. ( while not abusing myself for having them!!!!) Again, and as always,. Thank you.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Patricia! Oof, shame research — I have to say that when shame and guilt are foreign and toxic, then yes, they’re terrible things to endure.

      But when they’re healthy, they’re wonderful, and they don’t feel like what we’ve come to know as shame at all. Antonio Damasio talks about the necessity of shame in moral development, and there’s research to suggest that the Concern for Others dimension of empathy is related to healthy shame (shamelessness is a sign/symptom of low empathy).

      I’m glad that you and your shame have become friends! It’s such a fabulous emotion when it’s healthy.

  4. Sheelkumar R Pal
    | Reply

    karla ,I am really very grateful to you , for all your efforts , in creating so much awareness about nuances of shame .
    How can it get any better than this . I wish you all success , and pray for all the blessings of life to flow to you , in all ways , always .

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you, Sheelkumar!

    | Reply

    Thank you for such clarifying inquiry.

    Would you comment on the topic of being shamed for being happy-creative-joyous in as much entirety as you see? Thanks in advance.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Matthew!

      I’d need to know the context. If the shamer is depressed or over-serious, it would be the shamer’s inability to manage that is at issue; though the constantly happy person may not have the skill to see that they’re being annoying or out of place in the social context.

      There are a lot of research studies about the problems of a too-positive or too-optimistic outlook (lack of awareness of difficulties, lack of awareness of limits, lack of planning for the future, etc), so it could also be that the people shaming the joyous person have seen the results of this behavior before.

      And if the joy and creativity are a part of a predictable manic phase, the shamers may be trying to act in the place of the shame that the happy-slappy person is ignoring!

      Of course, there are other answers depending on other contexts. Thanks for the question!

  6. Kathryn Turner
    | Reply

    HI Karla,
    What if the action in question (whether or not I am guilty) is not black or white? My sister and I persuaded our 94-year-old mother that it was time to move out of her big home of 64+ years, to a lovely 2-bedroom apartment in a retirement home where she already had friends (none of us kids lives nearby). She acquiesced, I think partly, because everyone seemed to be giving her the same advice: move. I know she still misses her home and, for example, looking out her window to see birds at the bird feeder and people walking by. After a year and a half in her new apartment, she has lost the sight in her “good” eye to macular degeneration and also shown more signs of dementia. I still wonder and feel guilt over our decision: were we right in having her move? Would she now be happier if still in her house? At the time leading up to the move she was also expressing some depression and we felt she would be better off in a place where socializing was easier. But it’s unclear and feels like it may always feel this way. How to come to terms with a decision that cannot be undone? It is not a black or white scenario! Thank you for whatever clarity you can provide me.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kathryn,

      It’s okay to feel guilt and shame about a decision. The work here is to understand whether they are authentic to you, or if they come from the outside. At 94, any change will be difficult, but getting your mom to a supportive community was a really good decision. If your mom was uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean that the decision was wrong.

      Taking care of aging parents is a difficult transition for many families, no matter if the decisions are perfect or flawed. In a real sense, elders are stepping down from adulthood to a need for care, in much the same way they stepped up from a need for care to childhood, adolescence, and adulthood as they matured. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to care for our parents often have some difficult emotional work to do as we switch places with them.

      It sounds to me as if she is winding down physically and cognitively, which is a natural transition. Perhaps staying in her home would have been more comfortable for a while, but the depression and the need to get her into a more supervised and supportive community really took precedence.

      Something you may find supportive is to look at grief, because of the losses that are occurring as your mom ages. The lingering nature of the guilt and shame you talk about feel as if there is a deeper emotion underneath: https://karlamclaren.com/grief-the-deep-river-of-the-soul/

      In my neighborhood, there are a lot of older people who are staying in their homes far past the time when they need support, and we’re all watching out for them, but I am concerned a lot of the time. The community your mom is in is such a good idea, and it’s wonderful that you and your siblings were able to find her a place with friends. In a difficult time, with no children around to keep a close eye on her, this was a very supportive thing to do.

      Take care.

      • Kathryn Turner
        | Reply

        Thank you, Karla, for your response, which helps. And I know that I am grieving the loss of my mother as I knew her for most of my life, and feeling sadness that the end of her life (though a good long life) is harder than we’d all hoped for her. So many ways to leave this life! My dad died suddenly, seemingly in “the pink of health” at age 80, which was a shock, but at least we didn’t see him suffer.

  7. Loz
    | Reply

    I’m wondering what your thoughts are on big emotional/moral dilemmas – difficult subjects such as abortion or perhaps killing somebody in self- defence? I think most people feel a sense of shame at the thought of taking a life – even if you aren’t judged in legal terms and whether you felt you had no choice or not. With abortion for instance, if you feel shame there isn’t a whole lot you can do action wise, especially if you were taking precautions to begin with. Grief seems workable, anger even, anxiety too. But shame seems like a tough one to know what to do with in this instance.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Loz; good question.

      Both of these involve death and require grief, so probably a ritual is in order. The shame would probably stay around for a while, because a person doesn’t want to repeat these situations. If the shame became intense, it would be time for some sort of intervention, moral or psychological.

      It’s important to feel the shame in these situations (if it’s present — some people are able to integrate these experiences without a lot of struggle, especially if they have good social support). But if the shame becomes overwhelming, it’s also important to seek out intervention and support.

  8. LJ
    | Reply

    Karla, I think an emotion has manifested as a health issue for me. It’s a hormone issue that has an undetermined source (meaning Dr’s can’t really do anything), and while not life threatening, makes me feel ashamed/embarrassed, and I wonder if I’ve created it to protect myself from others and the world using my embarrassment as “castle walls.” It is a thick boundry which I isn’t serving me anymore and I want to give up my embarrassment for what I can’t control or even more enticing is healing altogether. Besides burning contracts with the shame I feel now about the condition, can you give any insight into how to analyze the health issue for what it was born from. In TLOE you write a lot about shame associated with actions, but this shame comes from something I can’t control (maybe there’s something telling in that sentence.)Thank you so much for all you’ve done for helping make emotions approachable and human; the world can use more people who understand them.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello LJ. I don’t connect emotions and illnesses, but I wonder about the external shame that is applied by the “perfect health” people?

      I don’t know about you, but I grew up in the alternative health community, and there’s a lot of extremely unrealistic ideas there about perfect health and why we get diseases (supposedly, because our emotions, ideas, thoughts, or connection to gods are funky). It seems like a hopeful ideology at first, but when real life and the fact of human bodies intrude, people can be plunged into deep shame and embarrassment over natural human ailments and disabilities. It’s rough.

      For me, I would focus on the emotion and ask the questions, and see where it goes. Remember that emotions come forward to help you, and to point out situations that are really not working. Separating the emotions from the health issues can be very helpful, because if you think an emotion is contributing to an illness, it can be hard to work with it.

      I wish you and your emotions well!

  9. William
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,
    I feel little confused about shame. I read Brad Shaw book, “Healing the shame that Binds”. I feel like I understood what he was saying, but sometimes it contradicted what I read in your book, “language of emotions” on the shame chapter. The reason I got confused is that he says that after you get rid of toxic shame, you are left with healthy shame. But from my experience, it doesn’t feel like shame at all. It just feels like a bunch of emotions grouped together and can’t tell which one is healthy shame, or anger. It just feels like joy and ecstasy. In your book you say you can actually distinguish healthy shame. But I can’t really tell. The only time I can distinguish shame is when it feels toxic.
    Bradshaw says that healthy shame is our sense of wonder and seeing mystery. But in your book you say that shame is anger towards yourself. In your book you say that shame feels as internal pull in your gut. I only feel that when I am having toxic shame. I am confused if whether I should be feeling internal gut pull even when shame is healthy or when it is toxic.
    Can you explain to me like how healthy shame should feel like? I know it should never about be about belittleing about ourselves because then that would be toxic shame. Also like when my anger comes forward and I feel it so I can have boundaries, then the toxic shame leaves and I don’t feel the pain of it anymore. Then I wonder if I should be feeling something to warn me of making a mistake without feeling the pain of making a mistake. Because I know when other people make mistakes, they don’t feel all the pain that Comes from making mistakes. Instead they feel love and compassion towards themselves. I wonder if healthy shame should make me feel the same thing like my friends. If I don’t feel that, then they would be unhealthy Shame.
    I hope you know what I mean. I just feel confused about it. I don’t want to feel like I should be feeling something even if I am not supposed to feel anything else other than what I am feeling right now.

    Your friend


    Thank you

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Dylan,

      Do you mean John Bradshaw’s book? If so, he wrote it about 30 years ago, and I don’t think he was an emotion researcher. I think he was basically riffing.

      All shame is healthy, is what I’m thinking now. it’s the messages we picked up and the contracts we agreed to that create the problems, if they’re no longer workable, or if they were abusive in the first place.

      Shame is your behavioral manager, based on the ethics and morals you agree to. If you can live up to your ethics and morals, cool — you probably won’t feel anything but a sense of, yep, this is how to live. And if you were raised in a warm and accepting household, you probably won’t feel overwhelmed when you screw up.

      But if your morals and ethics aren’t livable, your shame will feel rotten. And when you screw up, you’ll probably feel rotten too.

      So the work with shame is to make sure that your morals and ethics are livable, and that you agree with them today. If they’re causing trouble, Burning Contracts to the rescue!

      Then, you and your shame can find enjoyable things to do.

  10. Dylan
    | Reply

    yeah I am talking about John Bradshaw book. I have found that I am able to even live out what used to be my shadows, and feel a sense of comfort and peace with myself. This enables me to accept other people because I am no longer wrestling with what used to be my demons. I am able to accept my demons and the demons of other people. I step back and do whatever behavior that shame thinks is the best in any given moment because it feels right. I think I am in the right track here .
    Thank you Karla for your books and this website.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Okay, great. I’m glad that you and your shame are working so well together.

      Shame party!!

  11. Agnis J Pena-Toro
    | Reply

    Hello Karla,
    Could you please say something about body shame and people hating their bodies because their bodies were not accepted but shamed when they were kids? How about parents who shake their children for being in a bigger bodies, submit them into diets, restriction, etc. that end up for many in eating disorders. Please, I’d love to hear about this type of shame, body shame.

    Thanks so much!

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Agnes, and welcome.

      Though this is commonly known as body shame, I see it as a normal response to abuse. Shaming someone is usually abusive, and abuse can teach people very painful things, and very painful ways to survive.

      The focus in this particular form of abuse is on appearance and weight, so the healing work would likely be partly in the Health at Every Size community, and partly in some form of loving somatic therapy that helps people reconnect with their bodies in safe ways again.

      In terms of the skills we teach, Burning Contracts is the go-to skill for riding ourselves of terrible programming or abuse. There is also a practice called the Shame Shrine that can help when abusive self-messages are highly activated. If you’re interested, DEI Consultants can help you, and they’re here: https://emotiondynamics.org/all-dei-consultants/

      I hope this helps!

  12. Eva
    | Reply

    This seems to not apply to me. When I express feeling guilty, I feel heavy, I feel weight on my shoulders, I feel responsible. It usually continues with me mourning. When I express feeling shame, I want to hide under a rock, not exist, I don’t want to feel responsible or am not sure if I am.

    Shame is usually about myself (my self-image); guilt is about someone else (how they were harmed, even if it was by me). The emphasis is different.

    If I show myself compassion, the shame goes away. It evaporates. Guilt becomes a notch in my belt (not in a good way, maybe at the end in a neutral way at best). It’s something I have to carry. The factual aspect of guilt doesn’t take away that there can be a feeling accompanying this fact. Also, being guilty is clearly a fact in relation to morals. So how much of a fact is it if it’s relational?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Eva, yes, that’s the way most of us have been socialized to identify these two states as different emotions.

      When you feel shame about something intrinsic to you, it would of course feel more powerful. Shame about something you did and can correct is a less intense form of shame. Most people identify that as guilt, and it’s related to our moral structure and the structure of our social world.

      The focus is not to separate out these two activations of shame, but to understand that shame is acting on the messages you’ve uploaded. If they’re toxic messages, or if you’ve done something very wrong, your shame will respond in more powerful ways.

      If the messages are livable, such as “I want to floss every day,” and you fool around and don’t floss, your shame will likely arise in a manageable way.

      When shame is intense, it may be due to a very real misstep you’ve taken that needs to be addressed and corrected. OR, it may be that the shaming messages you’ve uploaded are unlivable, and need to be addressed. The Burning Contracts practice is a specific shame practice that can help when your poor shame is being forced to uphold terrible messages and contracts.

      Burning Contracts.


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