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Guilt vs. shame

February 16, 2014

To understand the difference, I looked up the two terms using ‘Guilt’ included “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense” as a part of the definition. For ‘shame’ it included “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonourable.” These are very similar to the definitions used by the researchers:

“When people feel guilt about a specific behavior, they experience tension, remorse, and regret,” the researchers write. “Research has shown that this sense of tension and regret typically motivates reparative action — confessing, apologizing, or somehow repairing the damage done.

Feelings of shame, on the other hand, involve a painful feeling directed toward the self. For some people, feelings of shame lead to a defensive response, a denial of responsibility, and a need to blame others — a process that can lead to aggression.

In close to eight years of facilitating restorative conferences, I’ve seen the interplay between guilt and shame many times. Whether it’s someone saying, “we’re good people, we don’t do things like this” or a juvenile showing embarrassment because of a parent in prison, “shame” builds many walls to communication and understanding. Often, a lot of time is needed to build trust to break through those walls. 

The key is found in the restorative values of respect and voluntariness. I remember an individual in his 40s who had committed a crime when a conflict situation escalated. He was embarrassed and ashamed which he expressed through belligerence. He talked about being judged and considered a ‘criminal’ by his community. Yet, as he told his story and shared his feelings his attitude began to change. In a meeting with a community representative, the man talked about the bad decisions he made and the responsibility he had to make things right. The offense was no longer about his identity; it was about his decision making. 

Many times when I talk to the parents of juveniles, I have to address their fears of punishment and verbal abuse aimed at their child. I listen to their fears and talk about how the crime is something the young person did and not who he/she is.  It means separating behaviour from identity. In other words, we talk about accepting responsibility and making better choices. I’ve even watched client’s body language change from negative to more open and positive as they go through the restorative process. 

The interplay between guilt and shame reminds me of an intricate dance. Shame, as a natural emotion, is one step in that dance. If all the steps are done well then shame moves to the more positive emotions that result in the taking of responsibility and making things right. 


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