Mental Health

The Chaos Within: Torturous Guilt vs Crippling Shame

The Chaos Within: Torturous Guilt vs Crippling Shame
Published On: 20-Oct-2023

Article by

Hafsa Shahzada

Afsoos (Regret). Sharmindagi (repentant). Mera qasoor (my grievance).

It is always my fault.

I hurt them deeply with my behavior.

Can I never get anything right?



Two words.. Both synonymous with the pain shrewd through a human soul. So similar in their sounds, and powerfully intense in their core. Ambiguous since they are often used interchangeably.

In a Brief

Guilt and shame are both negative emotional states that each of us will experience on various occasions throughout our lives.

According to researchers Tangney and Dearing (2003), both guilt and shame are self-conscious emotions, symbolizing self-evaluation and self-reflection. Classified as the basic moral experiences of an individual, guilt and shame, are the negative self-evaluations and feelings of despair induced by one’s perceived failures or transgressions. The two affective states are seen to strongly correlate with each other. They also often coexist in the same situation, however, their manifestations differ.


Brief: In this affective state, what you feel is a nagging remorse over an action or inaction. It is the responsibility you feel for a harmful attitude or behavior.

How you feel: That sudden, sharp sour taste of regret on your tongue; the building of a knot in your throat; the heaviness on your chest.

Neural context: Activity in the amygdala and frontal lobes, but less activity in both brain hemispheres. Linked to a conflict with your conscience over a misdeed to harm others.

While some individuals may harbor guilty feelings after they make an error or hurt others, it is also likely for a person to carry guilt over things outside their control.

For example, divulging a friend’s secret without their consent can build feelings of guilt, particularly while knowing the hurt the friend felt, and the harm such an action caused for the relationship.


Brief: We feel shame when we violate the social standards we believe in. At such moments we feel humiliated, vulnerable, and small; with an inability to look another person straight in the eye.

How you feel: You yearn for nothing more than to sink into the hard ground underneath your feet and disappear. You wish for yourself and others to forget the feeling and memory altogether.

Neural context: High activity in the right hemisphere but less in the amygdala. Linked to self-despair over one’s own defects. (Brandt et al., 2002).

According to research, women are more likely to feel humiliated than men, and adolescents feel shame more intensely than adults do. As a result, women and adolescents are more prone to the negative effects of shame, such as low self-esteem and depression (Gilbert & Irons, 2008).

For example, feeling shame for not being present at the death of a loved one, and the pain of the self-critique leading to constant belittlement and self-destructive behavior, such as self-harm or emotional outbursts.


●        An external state to how things are in the real world

●        You feel sorrow and responsibility for something you have done wrong or perceive you did wrong.

●        Links to a specific action or event, such as making a mistake, committing an offense, or even hurting somebody (intentionally or unintentionally)

●        Encourage us to take corrective action to make up for the fault

●        Can lead to positive change and harness deeper relationship bonds.

●        Short-lived & and teaches us valuable lessons.


●        An internal state about the “self”.

●        Drowns you in a feeling that you are wrong, unworthy.

●        Is the basis for ongoing mental and substance abuse problems.

●        It teaches us that we are bad, undeserving of good, and hurts our relationships.

One way to understand both of these affective states in a single scenario is like this:

Guilt: “I am sorry. I made a mistake.”
Shame: “I am sorry. I am a mistake.”

Strategies for moving past and letting go

For Guilt

●        Analyse your thoughts

●        Apologies go a long way.

●        Apologize with kindness to yourself, then free yourself from the experience.

●        Reflect on gratitude and what you came out learning from this experience

●        Focus on the “present” moment

For Shame

●        Recognize shame as it arises in your life: cultivate self-awareness

●        Understand the origins of your shame

●        Daily check-ins to build self-compassion

●        Acknowledge the different parts of yourself that are “present”.

●        Write yourself a self-compassionate letter

●        Share in the context of a trusted social circle.

Nonetheless, we must not neglect the fact that shame and guilt are essential emotional elements in leading a prosocial life. (Guilt and Shame, 2023). Guilt and shame lend people an insight into the feelings, attitudes, opinions, and assessments of those around them, and therefore, act as a force that brings people together.

As a lasting note: We are not our mistakes. We are not our flaws. We are real, present, and capable of good, always. 

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