Are Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt the Same Thing?

It’s a complete misconception that embarrassment, shame, and guilt are the same thing, in reality, they are different sides of the same coin (if 3-sided coins were a thing) and I think it’s important to recognise the difference between them.

Last month I shared what shame is and how shame might be affecting you, even if you don’t realise it.

Shame can have a really negative impact on your life over a number of years or even decades, and is never useful for changing behaviour, or helpful in living emotionally healthy lives.

Is shame the same as embarrassment?

You may think that shame and embarrassment are the same, and whilst there may be some similarities in how you feel initially, feelings of shame are often more intense and longer lasting than embarrassment.

Embarrassment is most often experienced in a social context, for example, if you tripped when walking in the street you may have felt embarrassed and worried in case people saw you. But if you tripped at home you don’t experience the same feeling of embarrassment even though what just happened was exactly the same thing.

An embarrassing event can really knock your confidence.

If you experience public humiliation, you may well mentally replay the event over and over in your mind, feeling a renewed sense of embarrassment each time.

This spotlight effect is an overestimation of how much other people actually noticed what happened and can seriously increase your sense of embarrassment or prevent it from fading.

Yet research shows that individuals who do not try to hide their embarrassment or who are able to laugh at their own mistakes tend to be more well-liked and trusted by others!

Significant or repeated instances of embarrassment can contribute towards mental ill health, such as anxiety and depression, chronic negative thought patterns, and a lowered sense of self-worth. These potentially lead to shame which is why therapy can be important to help you out of these patterns of thinking.

Is shame the same as guilt?

Most counsellors, therapists and researchers believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt.

Feelings of guilt come from an action which we accept responsibility for. Guilt causes us to focus our attention on the feelings of those we have affected.  

It is like judging something we have done, or failed to do, against our own values or standards and feeling emotional discomfort as a result.

We feel guilty because our actions affected someone else, and we feel responsible for that.

Whereas shame makes us direct our focus inwards and view ourselves in a negative light.

Both guilt and shame can occur together to some extent. Guilt can trigger a sense of shame in some people because of the inconsistency between the standard to which they hold themselves and their actions.

The connection between guilt and shame grows stronger if more people witnessed what happened and depending on the importance of those people too.

Shame will also increase if the person who was affected by our action criticises or rejects us.

Feelings of guilt, although painful, are less debilitating than shame and are likely to motivate us in a positive direction toward change or making amends. Therefore, guilt can be helpful – but shame never is.

The link between shame and mental health stigma

People facing mental health challenges, and their families, very commonly feel embarrassed and ashamed about it.

More often than not, this stems from the fact that those who seek treatment for mental health concerns are often stigmatised by those who believe they are violent or dangerous, are incapable of looking after themselves, or are to blame for their condition.

This does not help people recover and indeed stops many people from seeking help in the first place.

Back in 2013, a global study showed that family members tend to be more embarrassed of a relative’s mental health illness than they are of physical illness. This can result in a lack of social support for those with mental health challenges, yet this support is often crucial to the recovery process. This lack of support and understanding can manifest as feelings of shame.

Shame can easily become a barrier to mental health treatment and people with mental health challenges may isolate themselves out of fear of judgement.

Rather than let others know about the issues they are experiencing, they try to cope alone feeling like it is their own fault, and this sort of shame can often cause a mental health condition to worsen.

Can therapy help with shame?

Absolutely. Living with shame can be lonely and demoralising but it doesn’t need to be that way.

Therapy can help by addressing the underlying causes and helping you reframe the stories you tell yourself.

Some people suffer in silence for years, and unfortunately this can allow shame to completely consume their state of mind, resulting in problems with mental health.

Professional counselling can help you identify where your reactions are coming from, break free from your old patterns of thinking, and help you move past shame.

If you’d like to book a confidential counselling session, please do contact me.

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