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The Distinction

Photo by Amol Tyagi on Unsplash

When a jury has completed deliberation and returns to the courtroom, the judge will ask the foreperson to read the verdict. After a brief explanation of the crimes under which the accused was indicted, the response is generally guilty or not guilty. No explanation is required for this verdict; it is simply the conclusion reached.

On some occasions, the defendant may enter a plea of guilty and skip the possible humiliation and shame of a trial. Perhaps the crime was done in a fit of rage or as an act of revenge and committed it in front of many eyewitnesses. Realizing there was no escaping a terrible outcome, pleading guilty was the least disgraceful way to resolve their moment of indiscretion.

The one common denominator all the above scenarios have is that the defendant is never asked whether they were innocent or ashamed. Conceivably the accused may be ashamed for committing their acts, but that has nothing to do with innocence or guilt.

In the legal scenario, it’s simple to understand the difference between guilt and shame. However, outside of a courtroom, it is often widely misunderstood. Are there times when it’s OK to feel guilt or shame? What is the difference and how does one know which emotion they are experiencing?

Gut reaction

When I first began my journey of what I like to call “growth and transformation,” I realized that shame was the biggest roadblock I had ever faced. Until then, I never gave much thought to the difference between guilt and shame. I also discovered I was not the only one facing this quandary.

The reason many have trouble distinguishing between the two is that physically, we experience these emotions in similar ways. My symptoms include nervousness – mainly butterflies in the stomach – loss of appetite, and sleepiness. The latter, I believe, is my body’s way of ignoring the awful feeling.

However, understanding the difference between guilt and shame was a vital step to heal from my past traumas. It’s precisely why this is the first concept I work on with every one of my new clients, and is the first question of every session until they can explain it with no hesitations.

On a personal note

Shame and guilt are both emotions we can experience individually or as a group. We can feel shame for what we’ve done, or we can feel shame for being a part of a group, community, or nation that has committed horrible acts. We will be discussing shame on a personal level that begins emotional healing and enhance personal development.

If you haven’t already, take a few moments to define the difference between guilt and shame. Please don’t be hard on yourself if you didn’t know; some dictionaries do not fully explain the difference either.

Guilt is the feeling we have when we make a mistake, a bad choice, or misjudgment. It may have been on purpose or an honest mistake but regardless, we feel poorly when we experience guilt. However, it can be a reflection of our morality, a sense of right and wrong, or what one might call a conscience.

Shame is a feeling there is something innately wrong with us. We are the mistake. It’s not seen as poor judgement but rather we couldn’t help ourselves because of our shortcomings. Shame is the culmination of all the negative things we’ve come to accept about who we were and are.

In many ways, guilt can be seen as a moral compass. By remembering the hurt and pain we caused, it can change our future behaviors. Shame, on the other hand, is something we incorrectly see as unchangeable. I am not worthy, smart, or likeable and that cannot be changed. Shame takes control of our thoughts when we tell ourselves that’s how we are and nothing is going to change us.


When we accept those false notions others have told us who we are, they are perceived as factual and facts cannot be changed. This is the hidden power behind shame and why it is so difficult for many to overcome. The sun will always rise from the same direction; it will never change. The same is true when we believe that we are unworthy, incapable, or countless other viewpoints we’ve wrongly believed about ourselves.

The feelings of shame become so overwhelming that in some cases, we seek out reasons to prove our unworthiness. We search for thoughts or actions that will condemn us and reinforce all the untrue accusations we’ve been led to believe who we are.

When was the last time someone complimented you and you brushed it off? Or worse, you responded by contradicting their positive assessment and told them something you did to foil their kindness.

Negating positive compliments was a common technique I frequently employed. It was my way of believing I was showing humility but instead, I invalidated their opinions and reinforced my shame. If you find yourself having difficulty accepting compliments from others, it may be an indication it is time for you to evaluate how much shame influences your life.

The flip side

Any time the word shame is mentioned, it is usually accompanied with thoughts of unworthiness, embarrassment, or disgrace. The one attribute that is rarely associated with shame is arrogance. However, when one considers what is at the root of arrogance, it is someone claiming they are better than how they believe you perceive them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t need to exaggerate themselves while hiding their true feelings of unworthiness or contempt of who they are.

It is my contention that shame is one of the most difficult emotions we will ever deal with yet for many, it will remain undetected for much of their lives. Next week, we will discuss ideas and techniques that will help uncover and heal from its damaging effects.

Also, there will be one other bit of exciting news that I can hardly wait to present.

My thanks to Amol Tyagi on Unsplash for the wonderful picture and I look forward to your comments.

If you or someone you know need personal guidance with overcoming shame, please feel free to reach out to me via email at,

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