Though guilt and shame are similar and often used interchangeably, recent neuroscience research suggests that they are very different emotional processes. They both underpin self-correction but they are made up of different brain chemistry, are based on different beliefs, and motivate different reactions (1).
Guilt arises when we think that we have done damage to something or someone. Shame arises when we believe that we are damaged in some way (for example, unlovable, unkind, inferior, incompetent).
Though both shame and guilt can serve as ethical guides, holding us to our own and our chosen community’s standards, shame is far more damaging to us over time. The following explains what goes on in our brain when we feel shame and guilt.
Neurologist and emotions researcher Antonio Damasio suggests that all emotions, positive or negative, have evolutionary functions geared toward our survival (2).
Emotions are motivators that have evolved over millions of years.
Human beings are social creatures and need interaction to survive. For our ancestors, being cast out of the tribe meant certain death. So emotions such as guilt and shame have evolved to alert us when we act in ways that could result in rejection from our chosen community or close relationships. When we misbehave, our brains release stress hormones that motivate us to adjust our antisocial behaviour (3).
Why does one person feel guilt and another shame for the same behaviours?
We have all felt ashamed, guilty, unworthy, or embarrassed at points in our lives. And we have all done things that are harmful or hurtful to others. But our feelings about our actions can vary greatly from person to person. One person may feel guilt and motivation to rectify a mistake while another person may feel ashamed, useless, and depressed for the same mistake.
While the negative impact of our actions does influence whether we feel guilt or shame, we are more likely to feel ashamed if we had experiences that led to shame in childhood.
When we are shamed often in our developing years, we become emotionally conditioned to feel ashamed in similar situations even if we bare no responsibility. In addition, if we have repeated experiences of shame, we develop negative self-beliefs (such as I am not good enough). As a result, our future mistakes are more likely to trigger shame-based self-criticism (4).
Emotional conditioning can also result in excessive guilt. The more we experience guilt as children, the more likely we are to feel excessive guilt as adults. Children tend to internalise the influential critical voices that they hear. This inner critic can become strong, hypercritical, and tireless, sometimes without us even realising it is there. FIND OUT MORE: Inner Critics.
Your Brain on Guilt and Shame
Both guilt and shame trigger fear responses in the brain. However, because guilt is focused on our actions, we have a greater sense of agency in rectifying our mistakes and alleviating our guilt feelings. This sense of agency makes a difference in our brain chemistry.
Guilt and the Challenge Response
Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests that our brain has more fear responses to choose from than just the well-known fight-or-flight. According to McGonigal, if we believe we can manage the difficulty that we face, our brains are more likely to react with a Challenge Response. Like other fear responses, the Challenge Response releases stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) in order to get us going. But it also releases oxytocin, which soothes us and motivates us to connect with others, and DHEA, which helps the brain learn from the situation (5).
Shame and the Fear Response
If we (consciously or unconsciously) believe that we can’t rectify the situation or save face, our brain triggers a fear response in order to protect us from further negative emotions. As a result, bursts of stress hormones motivate us to enact safety strategies such as dominance, aggression (blaming, denying, justifying), submission, or avoidance.
Psychologist Paul Gilbert suggests that when we feel humiliated (shamed by others), our brains most often react with the fear responses, Fawn or Fight. Fawn means that we adopt a subordinate or submissive role. We may attribute any wrongdoing to ourselves, even if we don’t believe we deserve all of the blame.
On the other hand, when we feel unjustly humiliated, we are more likely to react with a Fight response (becoming dominant or aggressive). By attacking, we attempt to overpower or bully potential attackers or rejecters in order to create a sense of personal security.
Impact of unaddressed excessive guilt and shame
All of the fear responses (Challenge, Fight, Fawn) can be useful in keeping us safe. But fight-or-flight responses put survival above all other motivations, including those for reparation, reconnecting with the hurt party, or learning from the experience.
When we fail to amend a situation, the experience adds to the evidence that supports our negative self-beliefs. A shame cycle begins in which we repeat destructive behaviours because we don’t believe that we have the ability to change. Or we engage in destructive behaviours (such as excessive drinking) in order to block out the overwhelming feelings of shame (5).
Unaddressed shame and excessive guilt can result in habitual self-monitoring and self-condemnation, which can lead to depression, anxiety, resentment, or anger issues. The good news is that we can actually change how our brains respond to our mistakes.
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References and Contributors
- Paul Gilbert. (2010). The Compassionate Mind.
- Anthony Damasio. (2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.
- Joseph LeDoux. (1996). The Emotional Brain.
- Joseph LeDoux. (2015). Feelings: What are they and how does the brain make them? Daedalus.
- Kelly McGonigal. (2015). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.
- Wendy Dryden. (2014). Shame and the Motivation to Change the Self. Emotion.
- Karla McLaren. (2010). The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You.