Shame, Guilt, & Your Mental Health

Learn how to shift your attitude and actions toward combating shame and guilt.

Do you know the difference between embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, and shame and the lasting damage they could create?

A white rough background with words in the center that read Learn to Shift your Attitude and Combat Guilt & Shame.

Most of us have experienced being embarrassed at some point in our lives. Embarrassment is a normal response to something that we feel is threatening the image of ourselves that we present to the world.

Embarrassment is both situational and morally neutral.

If we are caught picking our nose, chewing with our mouth open, or saying something incorrect verbally or in an email, we might find ourselves feeling embarrassed, but these are things that may or may not have any relationship to our core values and beliefs and they are something that people will forget about with no lasting consequences.

Shame, on the other hand, while often used synonymously with embarrassment, is a very different emotion, with different consequences entirely.

For example, if you mispronounce a person’s name in a meeting, or you mispronounce a word, people may chuckle, and you may feel embarrassed. However, you will most likely pronounce those things correctly in the future and be able to avoid that situation from happening again. On the other hand, if you were to fail a test, treat someone badly, or be passed up for a job that you really wanted, you could see yourself as a “bad” person or “not good enough” and because of that, you may feel shame.

An intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging

Brene Brown

Unlike embarrassment, shame is something that thoughts and feelings are attached to, and they are hidden from the world. Shame is intertwined with our moral character, and it is not always situational. Shame results from the perception we have about our thoughts and actions when they are not aligned with our core beliefs, values, or personal standards. Shame leads to self-destructive thoughts, negative self-evaluations, and these things lead to low self-worth. Brene Brown defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

When clients come to me experiencing shame and guilt regarding situations such as addiction, failure in relationships, or abuse, it is important that I help the client understand the difference between embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, and shame.

  • Embarrassment is mispronouncing a word
  • Humiliation is when the whole room laughs at you and points out your mistake
  • Guilt is when you cheat on your diet, and you feel bad about that
  • Shame is when you cheat on your diet, and you label yourself a cheater. I cheated versus I am a cheater are two very different things.

It is also important to understand that guilt is not necessarily a bad emotion. Guilt can be quite helpful as a believer to feel conviction about our actions. When we feel guilty this is a great opportunity to have a conversation with God and ask some questions:

  • why are you feeling guilty
  • why did you do (or not do) that
  • was it a sin
  • do you think you’re feeling convicted by the Holy Spirit or condemned by Satan
  • what does it mean that you’ve been saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9)
  • is God faithful and just to forgive you if you ask Him, even if you’ve done (or not done) this same thing over and over again (1 John 1:9, Matthew 18:21-22)?

Guilt can tell us that we have committed a sin against God, or that we have done something harmful to ourselves or to someone else and it tells us that we need to do something about that offense. However, if we stay in those feelings of guilt too long, we run the risk of entering a shame cycle and attaching our identity to the action that caused us to feel guilty.

When individuals struggle with things like addiction, they can do and say things that they would not normally do, and they can harm the people we love the most, triggering intense feelings of guilt and shame. The reason that it is so important to resolve these feelings right away is because guilt and shame fuel addiction and mental health conditions. Studies show that higher rates of shame and guilt are linked to poor recovery outcomes. Shame and guilt also trigger co-occurring mental health conditions.

Guilt is a problem if it goes on too long, but the lasting influence of shame is much more damaging to a person’s life.

Overcoming guilt involves understanding your feelings, addressing the source of guilt, shifting your attitude and actions toward combating shame and guilt, and understanding that we must challenge our thinking. Just because we think something, or feel an emotion, does not make it true, they come from a faulty belief system. We must tell ourselves the truth about the situation, about ourselves, and about the world and push back against these feelings of guilt and shame with facts, rather than feelings. 

Jessica Pottorff, MS, CADC

Our newest Intern and receptionist, Jessica is a certified alcohol and drug counselor and is now pursuing her licensed mental health counselor credentials. Please use the contact form if you would like to schedule a session with her.

Jessica is passionate about working through codependency issues, guilt and shame, and spiritual issues and allows God and Scripture to empower clients to see their potential and to find their identity in Christ. Jessica is authentic and builds rapport quickly with her clients by being personable, compassionate and Christ-centered. She has a passion to help people develop a deeper relationship with God as they pursue wholeness in all areas of their lives.