Guilt and Shame

Guilt vs Shame and the Role Each Plays In Recovery

We all know the sensations – the gut wrenching knot, the slumped shoulders, the averted gaze. Were these the reverberations of guilt or shame? They may seem similar, almost indistinguishable. In reality, they are quite the opposite in their presentations, but arguably equal in their potential outcomes.  

If guilt and shame were personalities, guilt would be seen as an authority figure that you respect like a parent or teacher. Shame would be the relentless schoolyard bully that lives down the street. Shame has often been referred to as the “toxic cousin” of guilt. Whilst guilt can guide you in the right direction, shame puts you back on your heels oftentimes making you feel small and worthless.


Guilt is a natural reaction to something you did that did not align with your values. It often serves as a productive tool to promote change. Guilt propels us to deal with the consequences of our actions, helping to guide us toward choices more conducive to the life we want to lead. Guilt reminds us that we don’t want to keep doing the things that make us feel this way.  

Guilt can occur when you’re alone, it is the buffer that prompts a change in behaviour before you lose control. Whereas shame is the consequence of someone else discovering your misdeed, which leads to lying and covering up to avoid this emotion. In turn, it makes it less likely that someone would have to suffer the consequences of shame, and therein lies its purpose.  


In Homer’s Illiad, Ajax tells his troops, “Dear friends, be men; let shame be in your hearts… Among men who feel shame, more are saved than die.”

Owen Flanagan from the department of philosophy in Duke University writes, “Feeling shame for addiction is not a mistake.  It is the part of the shape of addiction, part of the normal phenomenology of addiction, and often a source of motivation for the addict to heal.”

Shame has a long history in every culture worldwide, playing an important role in maintaining social bonds within a tribe. When shame is used without blame, it can have a transformative effect on behaviour. It can propel lasting change but there is a delicate balance between recovery and relapse.

Shame sometimes accompanies a deep seeded judgement of ourselves, our character, and perhaps our very being. It can carry with it dire consequences when castigation is involved. Shame has been shown in several studies to be a strong indicator of how intense a relapse one will experience. After all, deep seeded shame may be one of the reasons some people use substances in the first place. The question that arises, ‘Does shame have a place in a healing environment?’.

guilt addiction

The Brain When Dealing With Shame and Guilt

The patterns in the neural networks of the frontal and temporal parts of the brain are very different despite sharing these pathways. When we do something that is recognized by our conscious as “wrong”, we feel guilt. When we do something that damages our relationships or reputation, we feel shame.

After some fMRI trials, researchers found that shame is much more complex than guilt because of its cultural and social consequences. Guilt was found to be significantly simpler as it is often activated by our own learned ideas of right and wrong.

Attempting to Avoid Feeling Guilt and Shame

To avoid those uncomfortable feelings, there is a multitude of approaches that are used.

Blaming others, lashing out, and trying to find fault in others in order to make oneself feel better. It provides relief but only temporarily, and often leads to more shame.

Seeking perfection in order to avoid running into shame again. Of course, that is a dead end and a surefire way to feel worse about yourself when it doesn’t come into fruition.  

Being overly nice, or overcompensating. It is a recipe for disappointment as this facade is not sustainable nor honest. It is a way for us to try to prove our worth to others but when it backfires, it feeds the shame machine once more.

Avoidance itself. Although these are all methods of avoidance, simply withdrawing socially can stand on its own as a way to cope. This is probably the most common direction one takes to deal with the unwanted feelings that arise when feeling shameful. Time can alleviate the wounds of shame, so simply ignoring the problems until it goes away.  

All these ways of coping only bring about a cascade of negative effects and do nothing to heal the pain that shame brought about in the first place. 

Addiction and Shame

Naturally, shame accompanies addiction as an ever-present source of malcontent and stress. Using produces shame and shame can elicit more using. At the same time, overcoming shame is a critical aspect in recovering from addiction. The motivation that shame can draw out plays a crucial role in reclaiming the life compromised by addiction.


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