If we are to correct our child lovingly and effectively, it is useful to understand and recognise the difference between guilt and shame.
We all know it (although we may rarely admit it, even to ourselves): deliberately making someone feel bad or guilty for what they have done – especially if they have done something mean or hurtful – is an excellent way to motivate that person to change their behaviour. By changing their behaviour, they will be able to avoid the uncomfortable feelings of guilt or shame.
Most people think of guilt and shame as synonymous, however these emotions are fundamentally different in profound ways. It is true that both emotions encourage and motivate change, but one is more effective, and healthier for the individual, as well as our broader community.
The Difference Between Guilt and Shame
A key difference is in relation to the role of the self in the experience of these emotions.
In shame, the focus of attention is on the defective self, whereas in guilt, whilst the individual still feels bad for the transgression, the focus of the attention is on the transgression itself and hence what can be done to repair it or guard against repeating the regretted act.
Brene Brown has been active in recent years, highlighting the difference between guilt and shame, and other researchers have also identified key differences in terms of the consequences of these emotions.
The Negative Impacts of Shame
Shame has been shown to have a negative impact on interpersonal behavior. For example, the individual is:
- More likely to blame others (as well as the self) for the mistake;
- More prone to seething;
- More likely to experience bitter feelings towards others;
- More likely to become resentful;
- More likely to become angry and hostile;
- Less able to empathise with others;
- Less able to reflect on the mistake, and correct or change future behaviour.
In addition, shame has recently been recognised as a major component in a range of mental health problems.
The Effects of Guilt
The experience of guilt on the other hand, has been linked to more effective interpersonal behaviour as well as greater emotional wellbeing. This results in the individual or child being:
- Better able to empathise with others;
- Less prone to anger and angry outbursts;
- Able to express and handle anger, more productively and effectively;
- More able to take responsibility for the mistake;
- More able to reflect on how to repair the mistake, or prevent a similar problem arising in the future.
When the self is under attack, as it is in shame, the individual sees themselves as flawed and defective and thus to accept responsibility for the act is tantamount to acknowledging that one is not worthy of connection or acceptance.
With guilt, whilst the person feels painful emotions as they compare their behaviour with their values or what others believe they should have done, they are still able to see themselves as a worthy person, a worthwhile person who has made a mistake. The focus of attention is thereby on the mistake and its correction.
Is Your Child Experiencing Shame or Guilt?
A recent focus of research has been on the relationship between parenting practices that lead to children feeling either shame or guilt. How can you tell which of these emotions your child is feeling when they need correction and discipline? The following signs will assist you in discerning whether your child is more likely to experience shame or guilt at these times.
- My child takes responsibility for their mistakes.
- My child focuses on how they can do things differently next time to avoid making the same mistake.
- My child shows empathy towards others who they may have hurt through their mistake or misbehaviour.
- My child tries to hide the fact that they have done something wrong, and may lie about it.
- My child’s self-esteem suffers when they make a mistake.
- My child tries to be perfect in everything he or she does.
- My child becomes angry and aggressive when they have done something wrong.
- My child blames others when they have made a mistake.
- My child does not show any empathy when he or she does something wrong.
- My child seems to feel powerless to change things when he or she makes a mistake.
Upon learning of the difference between guilt and shame, parents often ask: What can I do if I notice that my children frequently shows a shame response?
Luckily help is at hand – there is a plethora of research into effective and compassionate parenting practices.
Try to avoid any discipline that involves ridiculing or intentionally “guilt tripping” your child. Phrases such as, “What were you thinking?”; “Don’t be silly”; or “That was selfish of you”; are examples.
In a nutshell, your aim is to say no to the behaviour, but yes to your child. A few useful books are listed in the references below; however, if you find that your child frequently engages in a shame response following correction, it may be helpful to consult with a parenting or child mental health expert.
Jina Kleynhans is a Clinical Psychologist, with a special interest in child and adolescent mental health and working with families. She finds it particularly rewarding to assist parents to find loving and effective ways of handling the challenges of parenting, particularly as she has plenty of firsthand experience herself.
Bookings and Fees: To make an appointment with Clinical Psychologist Jina Kleynhans try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.
- Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly, how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, lead. New York: Gotham Books.
- Gilbert, P. (2003). Evolution, social roles, and differences in shame and guilt. Social Research, 70, 1205–1230.
- Gilbert, P & Proctor, S. (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: Overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 13, 353-379.
- Markham, L. (2014). Calm Parents, Happy Kids: The secrets of stress free parenting. London: Ebury Publishing .
- Shapiro, S & White, C. (2014). Mindful Discipline: A loving approach to setting limits and raising an emotionally intelligent child. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
- Siegel, D.J. & Bryson, T.P (2014). No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. New York: Bantam Books.
- Tangney, J.P. & Dearing, R.L. (2002) Shame and Guilt. New York: Guildford Press.
- Tangney, J. P.; Miller, R S.; Flicker, L; Barlow, D. H. (1996) Are shame, guilt and embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), 1256-1269.
- Niedenthal, P.M., Tangney, J.P. & Gavanski, I. (1994). “If only I weren’t” versus “if only I hadn’t”: distinguishing shame and guilt in counterfactual thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(4), 585-595.