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Guilty as Charged! Now What?

Guilty pleasures. Guilty conscience. Guilt trips.

As a society, we seem to be consumed by guilt, or at least with eliminating it from our lives. It is the topic of thousands of books. You can cook without guilt. Diet without guilt. Eat chocolate or fried foods without guilt. Parent your children without guilt. Be a guilt-free working parent or a guilt-free single parent. Be a guilt-free golfer. But should we really be trying to get rid of all of our guilt? And what happens when our guilt turns into shame?

Knowing the Difference Between Guilt and Shame

The words guilt and shame are often used to express the same sentiment. However, the two emotions are quite different.

The standard definition of guilt is:

  • The fact of being responsible for wrongdoing or a crime
  • A feeling of responsibility for having done something wrong

Note the difference in this definition of shame:

  • A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace
  • A condition of disgrace or dishonor

The contrast between the two experiences is clear. We experience guilt when we injure someone else with our poor choices. Guilt is a natural part of the human makeup and a necessary part of our value system that motivates us to change. Guilt encourages us to take action, to right a wrong, and to become a better person.

Shame, on the other hand, is what we feel when we feel badly about ourselves. Shame is a powerful, overwhelming emotion that results when our internal judge and jury declare us guilty with no hope of salvation.

Why is the distinction important? A little guilt is healthy. A guilty person is able to empathize with another and show true concern. In contrast, a person experiencing shame finds it difficult to empathize with others due to concern for his or her own negative feelings of self.

Ways to Cope

Whether you are experiencing guilt or shame, there are methods available to help you cope. Consider using some of these strategies:

  • Recognize your guilt or shame.
  • Ask for forgiveness and make amends to those you have hurt.
  • Talk with friends, family members, or a therapist about your feelings of guilt or shame. It may help to talk to someone who has had a similar experience.
  • Allow yourself time to overcome your guilt and shame. In most cases, the feelings won't go away overnight.

As an added bonus, following these strategies and learning from your experiences will also help you avoid situations that cause guilt and shame.


American Psychological Association

Mental Health America


Canadian Psychiatric Association

Canadian Psychological Association


Burgo J. The difference between guilt and shame. Psychology Today website. Available at: Accessed February 11, 2014.

Coping with guilt and shame. AddictionInfo website. Available at: Accessed February 11, 2014.

Shame. website. Available at: Accessed February 11, 2014.

Last reviewed January 2014 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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