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Shame vs. Guilt

Updated: Feb 15

Build-up and accumulation of shame suggests that there are different kinds of shame, and differences in kind. Each encounter with shame gives way to a different sensation, what Sara Ahmed (2015) calls impressions.

For French philosopher Henri Bergson (1960; 1965) these impressions reveal qualitative and quantitative differences in emotions. That is, “sensations can be said to be twice, thrice, even four times as intense as another sensation of the same kind” (Bergson, 1960: 1). This is the difference between shame understood as singular (an intensity), and shame experienced in plural terms as intensities.

In Writing Shame feminist scholar Elspeth Probyn (2010) echoes these sentiments and expresses, “different affects make us feel, write, think, and act in different ways” (74). For example, shame experienced privately and alone, is not the same as shame that is put on display. Although shame need not require a witness for it to be felt, the gaze of another amplifies the intensity of shame.

Sara Ahmed (2015) confronts this element of bearing witness that amplifies shames’ affective-ness. She writes, “shame as an emotion requires a witness; even if the subject feels shame when she or he is alone, it is the imagined view of the other that is taken on by a subject in relation to herself or himself” (106). As Ahmed elaborates, “if we feel shame, we feel shame because we have failed to approximate ‘an ideal’ that has been given to us” (106). In this way, shame surfaces in the failure to meet cultural expectations (see also Brené Brown’s work).


Expectations rooted in morality and judgement mediate both shame and guilt, making the two “conceptually similar” (Crowder and Kemmelmeier, 2018: 398). However, this does not mean that the two are exactly the same. Instead, Brené Brown (2012) describes shame as a self-focused emotion. Whereas with guilt the focal point becomes about behaviour and actions taken. The difference between “I have done wrong” (guilt), and “I am wrong” (shame). Or as Brown quotes in her Ted Talk Listening to Shame, “Guilt: I’m sorry I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry I am a mistake”.

This inward focus tied to socialization and identity formation renders shame a self-conscious emotion (SCE) connected with how the self perceives the self. (Other self-conscious emotions include pride, humiliation, embarrassment and guilt).

In Shame: A Brief History, author Peter Stearns (2017) suggests that some people are more prone to shame, while others, more prone to guilt. The distinction for Stearns, lies in socio-cultural differences such as personality and proximity to power. According to Stearns, dominant groups situated higher in socio-economic status with more confidence, these are the individuals more likely to experience guilt (likely, because their privileges have them doing the most and cutting up). While “submissive” groups or “those held to be inferior” (Stearns’ words, not mine), were said to experience more shame. Said differently (and bluntly), white people experience more guilt, while Black and Brown people experience more shame. This has also to do with Sara Ahmed’s reading of emotions as sliding over some bodies, while accumulating on others. I write about this in Octavia Butler and the Object of Shame as Contagion.

In all cases, shame makes an individual feel negatively about themselves because as Marisa K. Crowder and Markus Kemmelmeier (2018) examine, we perceive negative evaluation by others (real or imagined) as shameful.

While guilt may be felt as its own intensity, the element of others viewing us as bad or wrong adds further intensity. Sara Ahmed (2015) asserts, “to be witnessed in one’s failure is to be shamed: to have one’s shame witnessed is even more shaming. The bind of shame is that it is intensified by being seen by others as shame” (103). Ahmed (2015) adds, “guilt implies action, while shame implies that some quality of the self has been brought into question […] In shame, more than my action is at stake: the badness of an action is transferred to me, such that I feel myself to be bad and to have been found or found out as bad by others” (105).

This nuanced reading of shame is key. It helps to make sense of why people keep shame covered up. This is literally the definition of shame. Etymologically, the word shame has Germanic origins and comes from the European/Goth word scham which means "to cover or covering of the face". Not surprisingly, shame functions precisely in this way. We cover it because it makes us want to hide, it silences and produces secrecy. I write about this in The Evolution of Shame and And Shame in Pre-Modern Societies. If you’re interested in learning more about shame, check out some of these other blog posts on shame.

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Until next time, in solidarity.

Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan

Image Description: This photo was taken at Sunnyside Pavilion in Toronto along the Lakeshore and near Lake Ontario. It is of a circular architectural building curved at the top with blue skies in the background. A blue and yellow design can be seen which reads, "Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion."

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