Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.

From Daring Greatly:

I believe the differences between shame and guilt are critical in informing everything from the way we parent and engage in relationships, to the way we give feedback at work and school.

From Daring Greatly:

A couple of weeks ago Steve McCready (a friend on Twitter) sent me a link to a fascinating blog post from researcher Dan Ariely. I love Dan’s work and highly recommend his book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty.

In a set of experiments, the researchers investigate a very subtle difference in language and labeling. They don’t look at it through the shame/guilt lens so we may be evaluating different constructs, but I think it’s very interesting (although counter to what I’ve found and believe).

“In a series of three experiments, participants were given a chance to claim unearned money at the expense of the researchers.  There were two conditions in each experiment, and the only difference between them was in the wording of the instructions. In the first condition participants were told that researchers were interested in “how common cheating is on college campuses,” while in the second, they wondered “how common cheaters are on college campuses.

This is a subtle but, as it turned out, significant difference. Participants in the “cheating” condition claimed significantly more cash than those in the “cheater” condition, who, similar to when we tempted people who had sworn on the bible, did not cheat at all. This was true in both face-to-face and online interactions, indicating that relative anonymity cannot displace the implications of self-identifying as a cheater.  People may allow themselves to cheat sometimes, but not if it involves identifying themselves as Cheaters.”

I believe that if we want meaningful, lasting change we need to get clear on the differences between shame and guilt and call for an end to shame as tool for change. That also means moving away from labeling. 

What do y’all think? What’s been your experience? Could Dan’s research tell us how to motivate better behavior while the findings about shame and guilt point to the danger of labeling in the process of changing behavior? Lots of good questions! I heart my job (and my grad students who push me).

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101 comments

  • Robin

    Thank you Brene'

    More and more I'm understanding that, as a kid, much of my shame came from attempting to express myself in my own unique way and somehow getting slapped down or pushed to conform in the process.

    It's a pretty common experience, yet as an adult I find it is still the #1 thing that hinders my self-expression. I sit with this part of myself every day and remind myself to dare greatly.

    So appreciating all that you do. Your writings and videos have been the balm I've needed ( and LOVED your interview on the Good Life Project http://www.goodlifeproject.com/brene-brown-vulnerable/ ).

    Hugs and LOVE,

    Robin

  • Corey

    Interesting post. I'm trying to work on a dissertation on the nature of guilt and shame, and reading things like this gets me motivated to keep working. It's a fascinating topic, and maybe even useful outside of mere academic interest.

  • Carla Smith

    I think the effect of the language we use to speak to ourselves is massive. It has deeper consequences than most of us are aware and surprisingly, the brain does not even process self sarcasm or joking well at all. It quite literally takes what we say to ourselves and responds as though the truth were spoken. I remember reading many years ago, how powerful a girl's words were when she looked in the mirror and spoke to herself. The 'you are so fat' or 'you are so ugly' words or something along those lines exhibited the exact same brain response whether they were said in jest or in truth. I wish I could remember the exact science behind it but it really impressed upon me and I have been playing with that response ever since. It's true. When you take the time to speak truths to yourself, 'yourself' responds in kind, like an authentic friend. When you beat on yourself you can cause emotional wounds. When you say, "I am bad", that is what is processed. The words "I Am" seem particularly powerful and how you identify yourself to yourself carries enormous weight. Thank-you for this post and that reminder.

  • Amber Henley

    You are so fascinating!!! I love reading your posts!!! Thank you!

  • Mary Elizabeth

    True. A nice distinction.

  • Allison Marek

    This is very intriguing. Don't the results prove that shame (being called a "cheater") or fear of being shamed actually prevents dishonest behavior? Perhaps it has to do with specific subject of cheating, because as we know, saying "Don't be a slut." or "Don't be the fat kid" or "Don't be the druggie" is ineffective in behavior deterrence and/or behavior change.

    I know that this was meant to point out how subtle differences in language can make huge impacts. However, in a way, it goes against what I believe about shame and guilt.

  • jaihn

    I've recently met your work, in the Sounds True audio 'The Power of Vulnerability', which led me to 'Daring Greatly', and this distinction which you so clearly describe seemed so important to me. I'm glad to see you've singled it out for a post!

    Beginning to understand the subtleties, and the difference, has already helped me understand some more of my own becoming, and has helped me move on through. I suspect it will continue to support me moving on through, too.

    Thank you so much for the work you are doing. xxxj

  • Brene

    Allison – it does and it doesn't. I think what's interesting to me is the power of the label.

  • sandy

    So glad you posted this. I agree with the importance of the distinction and really like seeing a study that makes the case. A small, probably irrelevant side note, I felt uneasy reading the summary, immediately imagining parents who might distort this finding as justification for labeling their child a cheater, i.e., if I call my child a cheater they'll be less likely to cheat. Completely bass-ackward interpretation, yes. Can you tell I work with dysfunctional parents and spend too much time hearing faulty reasoning?

  • Corey

    Sandy: Yeah, that's totally bass-ackwards! There's some good psychological studies showing that children whose mothers use guilt-induction end up much better off (morally speaking, anyway) than mothers who use shame-induction, or so-called love withdrawal.

  • Ted Davis

    Just received Brene Brown's new book for Christmas. It's fantastic!

  • Cecily

    Wow, lots to think about here. Thanks, Brene.

  • Kathy Slattengren

    I also find Dan Ariely's research fascinating. His research has found that people don’t cheat as much as they possibly could but cheat just enough that they can still feel good about themselves (staying out of the shame zone).

    Ariely states, “We human beings are torn by a fundamental conflict – our deeply ingrained propensity to lie to ourselves and to others, and the desire to think of ourselves as good and honest people. So we justify our dishonesty by telling ourselves stories about why our actions are acceptable and sometimes even admirable. Indeed, we’re pretty skilled at pulling the wool over our own eyes.”

  • Brene

    Corey – glad you're studying it! As you can see, there's a lot more to learn. If you haven't read Shame & Guilt – it includes a powerful review of the literature. They definitely come down on the shame=destructive, guilt=constructive side of the debate.

  • Srikanth

    You have defined guilt here, how would you define shame?

  • Brené Brown

    Srikanth – good question! I went back and added it to the post. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Allison Marek

    Wait… we are forgetting. Shame DOES change behavior. That's why people use it! It's just that the change isn't lasting and the damage caused by shame outweighs any benefits. So yeah, shame got the students through a research study involving a staged moral dilemma. However, I wonder if we followed those students and tracked their cheating behaviors throughout their academic careers if there would be any difference in their cheating behaviors when compared to the other group of students. I would guess not.

  • PamNana

    Labeling hurts and brands (like putting a branding iron to hide). "The fat kid, the wall-flower" – stuff that stays with you forever. And when a parent brands or accuses, it becomes an obstacle. "I didn't, but was accused, so why not?" Dad said, "can't never did anything." OK, that's not shame or guilt, but it built a determination. I can! My parents let me know when I could have tried harder (guilt).
    Shame, shame, shame! I remember pushing my little brother's stroller at the mall when I was 16. The obvious looks of disapproval told a story (they thought he was my child). People can be harsh. I agree that shame is not positive. My husband was ashamed that they didn't have indoor plumbing – but that's not the same as shame. Shame is being told that you're not good enough — and no one should have to hear that! Guilt is when we watched TV instead of study – then didn't do so well on a test.

  • Samantha

    Realizing now that "guilt-trips" from parents and siblings are actually "shame-trips". Or at least "shame-triggers" for me. This has been eye-opening in my relationships with them. Good changes are taking place. 🙂

    Thank you for your work and research! 🙂

  • Zohar

    Hey there, love your stuff!
    I think that there is much value in differentiating between shame and guilt.
    But I think both serve an adaptive purpose and both can be extremely debilitating.
    Plus, if enough guilt is employed we end up with shame anyway.
    I certainly agree that empathy acts more efficiently than shame as a social regulator.
    Maybe shame is required as part of the social fabric as the only way to really heal it is to empathize. I wonder if without it, would empathy for those less empathic provide less of an incentive? Just to be clear, I am not advocating shaming as a way of doing anything, I am just reflecting on if shame is in itself the problem or if it's the act of shaming – the habbitual manipulation of our intrinsic awareness of our place within a whole.

  • michelle harris

    This is, for me, the heart of all your work and writing. The writings in this post and your distiction between shame and guilt are the core of what I have learned from you." Thank you" doesn't really suffice.

  • michelle harris

    This is, for me, the heart of all your work and writing. The writings in this post and your distiction between shame and guilt are the core of what I have learned from you." Thank you" doesn't really suffice.

  • Autumn

    I began thinking about it and so many times when I feel shame in my life it turns into guilt.

    I was abused as a child and that made me feel shame. However, I felt guilt for not responding to it in a positive way. Guilt is what made me realize I needed to change something to also get rid of the shame.

    I bought Daring Greatly recently and it is my next book to read- I am excited!

  • Katie Morrow

    Brene, Thank you so much for your work! I live in Birmingham and was in your audience last Thursday. As a fan of your books, it was a thrill for me to hear you live. Your writing first fell into my hands last Fall. At the time, I was in the midst of trying to sort out (and recover from) a massive shame attack that happened to me at work. The attacker, as I will call him, is a business client and regularly uses shame as a tool. I have observed him using shame as a tool with others and have even comforted some in his wake. I suppose that I should not have been so surprised that now he had used it on me! In that moment, the sting of the shaming and labeling went so deep that I actually questioned my own worthiness. It seems silly in hindsight, but that shame is a powerful thing. Your words were a huge help in my "recovery." Thank you for this gift.

    Since this shame episode, I find myself really wondering about the wholehearted. In your research, did your wholehearted interviewees talk about their spiritual Faith? Knowing we are flawed and yet still worthy of love…did God come up as the source of that worthiness? I understand that spirituality is not a typical conversation point in academic circles, but I would love to hear your thoughts and observations on this.

    As a follow-up to your visit last week, we are having a panel discussion at St. Lukes this Wednesday night. I have been asked to speak and would greatly appreciate any insight you can share. Thank you!

  • Ellen

    I have also been struggling with shame and guilt and your books and talks have been and still are a great inspiration to me. Thank you so much. I just read Katie Morrow's question about wholeheartedness and spiritual faith. I read the book Coming home by Henri Nouwen (about Rembrandt's painting The Prodigal Son) and in this book he explains the importance of reconnecting with what he calls 'the first love' i.e. Knowing that you are a child of God, that you are worthy of love and belonging unconditionally, even before you were born. From that assumption it is easier to accept the love from human beings which is by definition limited or even absent. I hope it will inspire you

  • Kerry

    When I got 'Daring Greatly' (which, honest to pete, I always want to call 'Defying Gravity') for Christmas, I exclaimed loudly "I LOVE SHAME RESEARCH" and then proceeded to tell everyone in the room the difference between guilt and shame by using the "I did" and "I am" example. For years, at Christmas and every other holiday, I would wind up sobbing, hiding, or both, from the pressure and anxiety that shame caused me, feeling unworthy of the gifts and the celebrations. The day I understood shame was the day I got to start correcting it. Your work matters SO much 🙂 If I didn't already love my profession so darn much (see the defying gravity note above for a hint on what that profession is) I would surely be studying to work somehow in this field.

  • Rosa

    I found particularly interesting the piece of research about 'cheaters and cheating behaviour' and how people may occasionally cheat but wouldn't be comfortable with being labelled cheaters. I recently read an article about parenting and the dangers of labelling children. Labels are limiting in that they may set a child for failure or put a lot of pressure on her by having to satisfy great expectations of 'positive' labels. It's important, especially for kids that they can behave good at times and lazy at others and so on. We all may for instance cheat sometimes but that doesn't make us cheaters and we have the power to change our behaviour and to strive to be the best of ourselves.
    On another line of thought, excuse me if I over elaborate a bit. If we start owning labels then we have to own them all ! We are complex human beings and I believe that the line between good and bad lies inside every human being not dividing us. We are less likely to start pointing the finger at others when we see the times that we have acted 'unkindly' too.

  • Bri Saussy

    Brene-I just found your work a few weeks ago and I totally love it. Yes-I think its really essential to differentiate between shame and guilt-for everyone's sake and wholeness. My grandmother has a saying has come off the shelf since I had a little boy in 2011-you cannot break his spirit just his will. We use this reminder whenever he is having a temper tantrum-there are things he wants to do that he just cannot do (will) but the fight and fire is something I cherish about him (spirit). I feel its a similar thing with guilt and shame-we are told not to feel guilty when in fact guilt can be really constructive-and we are shamed in a million insidious ways without having a name to put on the experience-or the scars it leaves behind.

  • Merry

    I am new to the revelation that shame has been my main chauffeur throughout my life. My highly dysfunctioning upbringing wrecked havoc on a family of 8 kids and the minefield we had to tiptoe through is so evident in every single one of us as 50 and older adults: drugs, alcohol, anger, mistrust, broken relationships, anti social behavior……you name, we it got!

    My goal for 2013 is to rid my self of this albatross and move into the life I was meant to have……

    Thank you Brene!!!!

  • Faye

    To me that's not counter to what you write about shame and guilt.
    The experiment seems to say to participants either "if you cheat today, you are a cheater", or "if you cheat today, you cheated this one time", which makes it conditional and gives people a choice *before* they act, and seems easy to see which is easier for people to accept about themselves.

    That's different from saying to someone "you are a cheater" vs "you cheated", *after* the action. In the first case, you may as well cheat again, cos you're a "cheater" anyway and it doesn't change anything. In the second, you still have the choice if you want to cheat again or not.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents worth, I'm definitely no expert.
    Thank you for your work, am a huge fan, has had a big, positive impact on my life.

  • Angela

    This is very interesting to me, but not at all surprising. I've been told many times that I "get too caught up in semantics!" I disagree. Like you, I believe words are extremely powerful and using the "right" ones is better. The very best example I can use to show how important this is to me is this- When I finally decided to quit drinking, I did not take myself to a meeting where I would forevermore have to label myself as an alcoholic, but rather to a meeting where I was given permission to label myself as a competent woman. I wasn't powerless. I am a women with a life-threatening problem that once had me. I did not need to be humbled. I needed to be empowered.

    Yes. The words and labels we use can be life-changing. It's important to pay attention to them.

  • Maria

    Not long ago I realized I've been putting labels to myself! Now I pay more attention to that and I remind myself to stop. Brene, I love your blog and your work! Thanks for what you do!

  • ?

    I get it, raised Catholic, now at a Lutheran University though..I don't like the inability to feel responsibility for yourself. I get a lot of "In Christ" at the end of thier emails..yet they won't take out the garbage..show up for work..and they think Jesus takes care of them with their 2k$ laptops, cars, apt., etc…They see them selves as merciful for Mexican mission trips..poverty is in the inner city next to them…who are not Republican which is their religion also…I am being taught how to use Art education to further thier or this PHD's personal stance…each person thier own priest…compassionate conservative = I will withhold information to those I need to control, I am merciful…..sickness

  • Lynn Selwa

    I think the difference comes from two distinctions.

    To be labeled a "cheater" would imply that is the person's primary or quite-often status. (Much like the permanent pervasiveness of "I am bad" in your book excerpt). And cheating behavior is typically hidden from public view. So I think that one's impression of people who are always (or almost always) dishonest would be a small number indeed.

    And, when I see the word "cheater", my first impression is of someone who is sexually unfaithful… not necessarily someone who steals money.

  • Janathan Grace

    Brene, I love your work on shame. Thanks for being such a rich source of grace. I have always been a bit confused about the distinction between shame and guilt. From my reading it seems your distinction is common to psychology, but anthropology seems to distinguish between shame as a social behavioral inhibitor (shame cultures such as Japan) which often has small internalization (I only care what others know, not what I actually do) versus guilt which is internalized social norms. It seems Christian theology also has a different interpretation of the two terms. My personal confusion is that there is a connection in my mind between what I do and who I am, so (to use your example), if I cheat once or twice, I may see myself as an honest person overall, but if I cheat as a regular practice, I will see myself as a cheater. It seems to me that shame is or can be built up from guilt. I would really appreciate some clarification on this. Thanks again so much for your wonderful contribution to this area of personal concern.

  • Gillis

    I purchased the audiobook for Daring Greatly in early December, and have since purchased a copy of the book. I'm in my 30's never married, and was in a fairly new and promising relationship with great girl. She knew of the book and had started it a few times, and felt I should give it a read. She thought I was emotionally blocked. There isn't much content on men, but what you have exposed is absolutely spot on. I grew up being good at most things, academics, sports, music, I always excelled. I was quarterback in middle school and made mistake, after mistake in practice. Eventually I got so frustrated I started crying, of course my nickname became crybaby. It took a couple years and a solid growth spirt to get rid of that nickname, but it has taken the courage of someone asking me to dare greatly and almost twenty years to actually realize how closed off to the world I have been. I'm not sure if the current relationship will survive my journey of attempting to dare greatly, but it's been amazing for someone to challenge me to do so. The distinction between guilt and shame is a good one. I don't have children, and almost skipped that section of the book, but I think it provides amazing lessons for all. I particularly liked your son telling you that your dog was not a bad dog, he was a good dog that made a bad decision.
    I'm slowly removing shields, and I have different shields in different situations, but just being aware of that has made a huge difference.
    Thanks!

  • Jennifer H

    Really great discussion going on here. I especially like what Rosa pointed out about the pitfalls of even positive labels. In my experience, labels, especially as applied to people, are rarely ever useful. They turn people into their actions instead of the living, breathing, dynamic human beings that they are. It's taken me years to begin to realize I have inherent value beyond what I do or do not do.

    Also love what Bri pointed out about how we're so often told not to feel guilty, when it's actually the more helpful emotion, whereas shame spreads around like wildfire unnoticed.

  • Jackie

    Shaming can come in multiple packages. Language and labels sure, but also in more subtle and debilitating ways as well. Shaming happens when parents withhold praise and nurturing, or constantly correct instead of teach. It can happen as well when "good girl" behavior is equated with being polite and compliant, even in the face of compromising oneself. Another way to shame someone is to not allow them to experience their feelings – as in "You don't really feel that way." Which implies that you are a bad person for feeling anger, sadness, __________ fill in the blank with whatever unacceptable feeling your parents have labeled.
    It may be obvious that I'm quite familiar with many of these. In the last three years I have been doing the hard work of shedding this way of thinking and the crippling feeling of being truly and fatally flawed.
    When you think of yourself in those terms all hope of ever being enough dies, and you expend copious amounts of energy in the hustle for worthiness. The pleasing and performing nightmare carnival ride. It feels so liberating to get the hell off that ride!

  • Elinor (Eli) Gawel

    Words are really important. I had not associated guilt with a deed and shame with a person but I see what you mean. I have the same word problem with the idea of work/life balance. That is so touchy. One small thing and everything is unbalanced. I like to think of trying to achieve a life in harmony.

  • WRS

    Working with my children through a difficult transition to a new school has made me think about the way the word "bully" is bandied about. It attempts to define a person rather than a pattern of behaviours. I'm sure it's *meant* to be shaming in order thwart poor behavior – but that just seems wrong-headed, offering nothing constructive to address the misuse of power (however attained). How can we better teach and talk about this in our schools (workplaces, neighborhoods, etc.)

  • De Yarrison, CPCC

    Thanks for this post and all your work, Brene. Marshall Rosenberg wrote about labeling & judging in his incredible book, Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life. He shares an interesting perspective: "While the effects of negative labels such as "lazy" and "stupid" may be more obvious, even a positive or apparent neutral label such as "a cook" limits our perception of the totality of another person's being."
    I find that there are often old messages and beliefs tied up in the self-identifying labels (even the neutral or apparent positive ones, i.e.: high performer) that may not be serving the individual in the here and now.

  • Murray A.

    Brene,

    Important distinctions:

    'Guilt' is what I did. (Example: I ate the cookie);

    'Shame' is who I am. (Example: I am a man who eats cookies even though I need to lose weight).

    Shame can always be expressed in the format "I am a man who … " (eats cookies).

    Accessing all five (5) basic feelings (Glad, Mad, Sad, Scared & Ashamed – with Guilt being what I did, and Shame being who I am) is a necessary part of Emotional Literacy. I define being Emotionally Literate as meaning that at any given moment I can look inward and know I am feeling all five, regardless of which one is on top.

    Further, Jung postulated that in response to – and to make sense of – events in our childhood (Wounds, such as having an 'Abandoning Mother'), we each came up with beliefs about ourselves (Shadow Stories, such as 'I am unlovable'). These beliefs helped us survive our childhoods, but unfortunately we tend to carry them into our adult lives and they sabotage us now. Unless I am willing to examine where my Shaming Beliefs originated (example: I am a man who is unlovable), I am doomed to endlessly sabotage myself and my relationships.

    Removing the concept of 'shame' from our inner vocabulary can only stifle introspection and prevent an individual's progress.

    Note that 'Why' and 'Should' are always 'Shaming Words': "WHY did you do that? What you SHOULD do is … ". Cleanly owning that I am feeling shame is one thing; shaming myself or others is another matter entirely.

    It is said "No one can shame me; I can only shame myself."

  • Priya

    I think this distinction is so important because I think you can become caught up in one of the two feelings and turn it into a vicious cycle between the two. This is a concept I have been learning about myself as I go through my own spiritual awakening. I know that for me, I have the need to please immensely; this forces me to end up in several situations where I feel guilty for not doing something that I think I should. So, I say to myself, "I did something bad by not doing X", but through self talk and magnifying my guilt, I change that language to "I am bad for not doing X". So not only do I label myself as a bad person but I now have taken feelings of guilt and turned them into feelings of shame which further transform into anger and resentment. It's a dangerous cycle that anyone who feels shame can get themselves into by not clearly being able to distinguish between the two.

    I am learning to know the difference by not only reminding myself of the definitions but also by practicing self compassion and changing the language I use to reconcile my feelings of guilt so that I don't inadvertently label myself into something I'm not. And I can honestly say, that as I learn how to separate the two, I feel more free to make mistakes, embrace my imperfections, and live authentically.

  • Heather

    Hello Dr. Brown,

    I'm wondering whether you have read Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw? In the book he makes a distinction between Healthy Shame-I've made a mistake and Toxic Shame-I'm flawed as a person. Might be interesting to combine with your insights?

    Just being vulnerable and adding my 2 cents : )

    • Nina Perales

      I haven’t read that book but I do believe in healthy shame as a way to feel and show remorse for the guilt (i.e. the behavior we did that inflicted pain.) I do completely agree with "toxic" shame, aka Dr. Brown’s definition of shame, as being destructive to a person’s sense of self-worth. I find that healthy shame automatically has the caveat of taking action to make a repair, amend, and/or apology. So glad this all becoming part of our language!

  • Madeleine

    Great post. As I discussed this with my husband, he commented that we actually tend to feel these two feelings – shame and guilt – in separate places physically. Guilt seems to be felt more in our guts and shame in our hearts. (embarrassment in our faces!)

    I am a parent of 4 boys and I am very careful to use phrases like, " that was not the best choice you made there" or "you're behaving in a lazy way" so as to separate from saying " you are bad" Or "you are lazy". But how do you help a child who seems to take whatever the guilt is about and turns it into the self-talk of " I am bad because…." I am not worthy because…." ? How do you stop that tape?

  • Lili

    I guess I feel that this discussion references the core of all the maladies in the world. This may sound exaggerated but it speaks of the subtle language that creates the cascading emotional/belief motion of unworthiness that on it's own has nothing to stop it vs the pause that allows remorse to intervene on behalf of the whole. It is a feeling really, a core feeling-belief, and the label of the feeling-belief, and the opportunity to use language as it is meant to be used: consciously discerning. It is the core function of the words that is the difference.

    Shame leaves no room for love. Guilt is allowed or fostered by love.

    There is so much I would like to explore about this. I grew up feeling a lot of shame, I guess I could say I lived my life through shame, and I feel as if I've been 'opaque' most of my life. And interestingly enough what I have most wanted through intentional work and circles I've engaged in is authenticity of self and clarity in understanding what is really happening around me.

  • Lili

    I guess I feel that this discussion references the core of all the maladies in the world. This may sound exaggerated but it speaks of the subtle language that creates the cascading emotional/belief motion of unworthiness that on it's own has nothing to stop it vs the pause that allows remorse to intervene on behalf of the whole. It is a feeling really, a core feeling-belief, and the label of the feeling-belief, and the opportunity to use language as it is meant to be used: consciously discerning. It is the core function of the words that is the difference.

    Shame leaves no room for love. Guilt is allowed or fostered by love.

    There is so much I would like to explore about this. I grew up feeling a lot of shame, I guess I could say I lived my life through the lens of shame, and I feel as if I've been 'opaque' most of my life. And interestingly enough what I have most wanted through intentional work and circles I've engaged in is authenticity of self and clarity in understanding what is really happening around me.

  • John Aspden. London UK

    I agree with much in this article. This approach helps me with my own 'self-talk' and then I use it with my clients to deconstruct ownership of deep problem such as shame.

    A recent example is working with a coaching client on procrastination and he told me how much of a procrastinator he was at work. He seemed to hold on to this label despite his perceived negative view of it, as if his life depended on it. I worked for weeks to encourage him, without telling him, to view the issue as procrastination and not him being a procrastinator. But no, he wanted to hold on to this as if he thought he had earned the title of Procrastinator or it gave him some worth, however negative.

    Our negative self-talk is often so deeply ingrained and habitual that it needs several weeks of 'catching' our thoughts to deconstruct the habits. For some people, having a label can be better than no label at all.

    I agree Brene, the constructs of guilt & shame are similar to 'cheating' & 'Cheator' and the effects are equally as profound.

    I bought your book at Christmas for five meaningful people in my life Brene and they have been bowled over. We all have our own shame stories and Daring Greatly goes a long way to making peace with our thoughts and our lives.

    John

  • carissa

    thank you, thank you…for reminding us of who we are – good, worthy, truthful, loveable, capable, valuable.

  • Diana

    I agree that shame and guilt are very different and should be separated. We are dealing with some unexpected challenges with our teenage son right now. He became an entirely different person, almost overnight, throwing out all his previous values and goals. It is heart-breaking and I find myself feeling shame often, wondering where I could have done better as a mom. After many great books and podcasts, I'm on a more positive road to letting his choices be his responsibility and knowing that I don't need to feel shame (at least not as much), but it's a hard one. The times I feel guilt are when I lose my temper and say something stupid that I shouldn't have. That's when I go in later and apologize to him.

    Shame is much deeper and is very hard to make go away, especially if we've been saying those messages in our heads for years. I experience shame much more than guilt. Guilt seems like a temporary issue that can be dealt with. Making a sincere apology can dramatically reduce or eliminate guilt in some cases. Shame is in the heart and head and really feels heavy when we're struggling with something. I think shame contributes to depression.

    Great post, thanks for getting me thinking about these.

  • Sandra Perkins

    I love how your work makes me think!
    Keep "hearting" what you do. It helps us all.

  • Stephanie

    Others may have said this already, but one thing I wonder about is the truth that lying, for instance, does not make a person a liar. But, we may be less inclined to lie if we believe we will be perceived as a liar if we do lie. So, it makes some sense that the risk of being perceived as a liar may prevent someone from lying. This actually helped my 9 year old son curb his habit of expanding the truth — I could tell him that he is not a liar because he tells a lie, but I helped him understand that if he chooses to lie he may be seen as a liar and he will lose trust.

  • John

    Last Sunday I used one of the letter comments from "I Thought It was Just Me" in a sermon I preached. I am listening to it on audio for the second time. I am amazed at how much shame is thrown about in the comments we make. While often it may not be intended to shame someone, but it can. Words are powerful and the images they paint does touch hearts and minds. It is good to define these words because the distinctions do matter. While I may act hypocritically because I don't do everything exactly as I say (the whole aspirational values verses the practiced values discussion) but the true hypocrit is the one who really hides well behind the mask and mistakes never seep out. But this is not the definition understood by some. And the common use of the words may blur the true definition, especially with words that have a connection like shame and guilt. They are not the same. They are distinct words but because they are related some can't see what distinguishes them. You work and insight has helped me understand and clarify one from the other. Now I can see where the anxiety comes from when certain things are said to me or about me. For that I am truly grateful. Blessings & Peace, John

  • Anna

    About an hour after reading this article, this thought came to me: being ashamed is a matter of the ego en guilt comes out of your heart. I mean guilt in the sense of 'I should show respect for others' and 'I don't feel good for not calling my friend while she needed my help'. Things like respect, empathy are in the human kind, you're born with them. When you have an open heart, those things will come up naturally. That's what I believe.

    Shame is learned and is a part of your ego. The ego wants to control things, have power. It isn't wat comes out of our hearts. The ego is very practical, it helps you making intellectual and practical decisions. But I believe that in our society and time, the ego is way to big in our lives, minds. The ego shouts, while your heart is whispering.

  • Liz Ostler

    I'm currently reading The God Who Weeps by Terryl & Fiona Givens and came across this passage that I found relevant to the present conversation & wanted to share it with this community:

    "…by guilt we mean the inward call to be truer to our better selves. Legitimate guilt is to the spirit what the sharp protest of a twisted ankle is to the foot: its purpose is to hurt enough to stop you from crippling yourself further. Its function is to prevent more pain, not expand it. This kind of guilt comes from the light and beckons us to follow; its counterfeit takes us only deeper into the darkness of despair."

    I would argue that shame is guilt's counterfeit.

  • Cynthia

    I have not had time to read all of these posts, so pardon me if I am redundant. It occurred to me that this is similar to your work, with a little twist in the outcome and dynamics.
    The research seems to show that we do not mind DOING a bad thing (cheating = guilt), but we are averse to BEING a bad thing (being a cheater = shame). In fact this seemed to prove we often go toward cheating when given the chance.
    I am not so sure this research proved that shame was a motivator not to cheat, so much as it proved we are bound by self prerservation in the form of being a human animal to do what we believe we need to do at the moment to get what we think we need.
    Byron Katie's work is helpful here, as it shows that when we believe our thoughts we have to act them out. Thus if I "need" something, I am going to take it unless the stakes prove too high to pay (being labeled a cheater).
    Clearly I am not a researcher, student of research or anything close. Just a fan with a thought!

  • Hannah

    I totally agree that we need to stop using shame as a tool for change. It's incredibly damaging and leaves a legacy that's challenging – sometimes impossible – to shake.

    I understand the value of the information Dan Ariely talked about in his post, but I'm struck by the "Cure vs. prevention" perspective the study takes. Speaking as a total layperson (and all the caveats that come with that!), it seems to me that if we want people to be honest, not claim money at the expense of others, and treat them with the same respect they want for themselves, then we focus on developing empathy. Using guilt and shame to stop them taking more money from the researchers seems to be a retrospective "cure" approach that alters behaviour really caused by a lack of empathy in the participants. Perhaps this is idealistic, but I wonder if the participants could really empathise with the researchers, would they want to take unearned money at their expense?

    Rather than using shame as a controlling factor further down the line, surely the real cure to this kind of action is to engender more empathy within children and young adults so we can do away with shame as a tool of behaviour modification altogether?

    Thanks for posting a series of thought-provoking questions Brene. Reading your blog is always a treat 🙂

  • mothlit

    This hits a personal note with me as a mom. As I've tried to create a culture for my sons and me that is different from the one I grew up in, I've tried to lay off the guilt to the point that the boys have learned to use it against me (they're actually great kids, but pretty smart and know how to work their mother). So whenever I say anything like, "Walking into this mess makes me feel pretty rotten," one or the other will say, "You're just guilting us." Lately, I've taken to a retort: "Well, are you guilty?" Shame… that's an ugly beast. I can only hope I haven't crossed over.

  • Kathy Slattengren

    Mothlit, trying to create a culture without shame/guilt is challenging. One idea is to turn what you said into an "I message" stating exactly what you're feeling and what you want to have happen.

    "I feel rotten when you leave your stuff all over because I like when our house is clean and I'd like you to pick up your things."

  • Cor

    There seems to be a tentative difference in time, between the to constructs. Shame & Guilt are ususally referring to the past (being, behaviour), whereas the experiment explicitly works to the future, ic labels in advance, leaving the freedom to choice…
    The first is used in the way we have been labelled, named, learned and thus opinionated about ourselves, and we can research how that influences us and our behaviour.
    The second gives us an occasion to influence coming opions about us. We might be measuring the first at the same time. But the two constructs are not the same, nor argueing each other?

    (apologies for my english)

  • Galit

    I found this VLOG in the Kris Carr website and thought of all the wonderful things I have learned from your book "The Gifts of Imperfections"

    http://kriscarr.com/blog/kris-carrs-health-wellness-vlog-5-your-inner-kiddo/

    What an awesome way to turn the table on shame!

  • Joshua Duggan

    Learning to separate the behavior of people from the person themselves has been an important step for me towards building effective relationships. Fundamentally, we are all okay. We are good, even made in the image of God.
    If we are dealing with improving behaviors, we are on a high road. Let's not get into the destructive nature of trying to improve people, who are the warming light and inspiration of our lives.

  • DebraD

    What a week to be talking about shame and guilt and cheating. Brene please do interview Lance and explain what you find.
    This is hard stuff that you write about. It's not hard to understand intellectually but it's so hard to feel – to really get. I take heart from the fact you spent a year figuring it out. However, I'm loving the journey.

  • Amber

    I have not fully formulated my own thoughts on this, yet. However, as a parent, it has given me a lot to think about, that's for sure.

  • LMFT

    I was recently stunned when someone I have been trying to build a relationship with told me I had "shamed myself". This happened after a disagreement. I was so shocked that the word "shame" was used and acutely aware of how it felt. In my circle of colleagues, the word shame is unacceptable. I cringe when I hear a parent say "shame on you" and I never used that word in raising my children. I agree that guilt can be a helpful reminder of how we may have strayed from our values, but shame to me has always be the equivalent of "bad". We may all be flawed, but I do not comprehend shaming myself or anyone else.
    Do you have any sources re: individual differences in how people carry shame and guilt? In families I see children raised in the same environment with very different beliefs in their self worth – this seems related to shame and guilt somehow.

  • Dave Tyler

    You say 'guilt is adaptive and helpful – it's holding something we've done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.'

    My thoughts on guilt are not as clear-cut as yours, as I think the beginnings of guilt come from other peoples values drilled into us when we are young – parents, teachers, TV etc. When I was younger, most of my guilt arose around getting caught (creeping in after midnight!), but I did not have the same values or belief.

    You defined shame as 'the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.'

    If I do have the same value/belief as others – 'do not lust after your neighbours wife' – and yet I still lust – I am more likely to feel ashamed – because these are my values and I have stronger pull to behave according to my values.

    So both guilt and shame may create feelings of unworthiness, but shame is more useful to me, as I am more likely to want to avoid it and act consistent with my own values.

    I will probably continue to exceed the speed limit and have to plead 'guilty' if I am caught, but I won't find it helpful and I probably won't adapt my behaviour unless my driving license is at stake!

  • Pamela P

    Hi Brene', Your idea is exactly the recommendation of child psychologists such as Haim Ginott. In our house we talk about "bad choices" with our children, never bad people. Behavior is labeled, never the individual. I've never thought of it as a shame versus guilt distinction, but I can see your point there. And you are right that is is absolutely critical for children to be corrected in reference to their behavior not their identity.

    However, what I also want to mention is that having a strong association of regret with something that is natural and should not be pathologized, whether the reaction is called shame or guilt, is very unhealthy. Example: I was raised in a very conservative Christian household. I got pretty physically involved with a number of boyfriends in high school and college and always felt very ashamed and regretful afterwards. I learned to strongly correlate those feeling with arousal and pleasure, so now, after being married almost 17 years, those feeling still haunt my sex life with my husband. (I'm finally working on changing this through Associative Awareness Techniques and Trauma Release Exercises.) Anyway, I am sharing this because in my case I think the shame vs guilt distinction is irrelevant. By your definition, I experienced guilt, but it was extremely destructive, not beneficial. I suppose that experiencing shame over this behavior would have been worse for me, but the guilt association was plenty bad enough. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about this.

    • lulu

      Haim Ginott, author of “Between Parent and Child” and various other similar books, was a genius. His books are well worth reading.

  • Amit

    Important question. I think that research may show us how to manipulate new behaviour, but I doubt it would last.
    As you have presented their research on this blog, I think it may be flawed. I have not read the book, or all the comments on here… so my reasoning is based on incomplete data. 🙂

    Did the researchers take into account the effects of suggestion/permission? Energy follows attention. So in this case, let's say behaviour follows attention. So they'd trigger people's fear of shame by invoking the label "cheater." Did they try the experiment using words suggestive of honesty and integrity also? Given the opportunity to avoid shame through a desire for integrity rather than a fear of shame (i.e. being labeled a cheater)… what would people choose?
    I strongly believe that fear is a poor motivator to encourage healthy lasting behavioural change.

  • Anne

    When I heard about a recent news artical I immediately thought of you and your work. I was wondering what you thought of the recent paper published by The Hastings Center Report entitled "Obesity: Chasing an Elusive Epidemic" by bioethicist Daniel Callahan. He basically proposes that we end the obesity epidemic by shaming people into losing weight.

  • meg

    I am a school social worker working with elementary school age children. I always start any interaction with the children (where a behavior is needing to be addressed) with a validation of their charactor. I will always assume that no matter what happened, they are good, decent empathic little people who may have made a mistake. I perhaps tell a personal story of my own to hopefully neutralize the shame factor. In the end…..there hasn't been a kid I can't reach. We all just so need to be seen, and seen as our best self rather than the "kid with the behavior problem or anger problem". When we start this kind of work early, especially the captive audience that is our kids in school, it builds an internal structure in these kids, of believing they are someone with value and worthy of love. Mindful educators, it's a trend I'm all over. Our impact, potential for positive impact is so huge. I think of that everyday. I also think of the difference it would have made for me……

  • Stephanie

    meg, I just read your post and wanted to thank you for what you said. I am a therapist and have two sons — 8 and 9 years old. I agree completely with what you said regarding what our kids need — what we all need — to be seen. I believe people make sense. In my work as a therapist/marital therapist, I have yet to meet a person whose feelings and behavior can not be understood when I take the time to listen and understand. The same, of course, holds true for kids. Their behavior makes sense and while it needs to be addressed and kids need limits, kids need us to understand what is happening below the surface. They need to know they are seen, heard and understood. There is nothing more powerful in my opinion.

  • Becky Blanton

    I respectfully disagree with you on this. I believe ALL emotions exist for a reason and are healthy and serve a purpose, yes, even shame. The reason most researchers want to get rid of shame is because shame is connected to morals, to faith, to God to our spiritual being. Just as there is good sex and rape, there is good shame and toxic shame. The differences aren't in the extent of the emotion, but in what each was designed by God to accomplish in us. If you are not a spiritual being (yet we all are unless we deny it) you won't feel shame. Psychopaths and sociopaths don't feel shame. They don't have that capacity. Are you sure you want to be like them?

    Shame is connected to our spiritual roots. It goes back to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve (or mankind if that's easier) were created perfectly…including the capacity to feel shame. When they disobeyed God and ate the able they felt shame, and covered themselves with fig leaves and hid themselves from God's presence. They knew they had done something wrong. They didn't feel guilt. They felt shame. Shame tells us we have violated our own character and ethics and core spiritual self. Guilt says we knowingly violated a law or rule. Shame changes US. Guilt changes our actions.

    Toxic shame is what destroys us, tells us that we are bad. It's been corrupted just as rape is not truly sex, toxic shame is not truly shame. I think healthy shame, the still small voice inside us that says, "This is not who you are. You are better than this. Don't do this." is good. Toxic shame comes from outside of us. It is other people twisting and using shame to control, humiliate, embarrass and crush us psychologically and spiritually that destroys us. Satan (yes, he exists) is the father of toxic shame.

    If you don't have a conscience, or don't want to be reminded you are the creation of a creator, then shame probably doesn't have a place in your life. If you want to know what you are truly capable of being, and who your creator is, it most definitely has a place in your life.

    Any artist knows that a heavy hand can destroy a beautiful creation. God created shame for a reason, man and satan twisted it to destroy. I embrace healthy shame. It keeps me on track. I loathe the toxic shame my parents and society force on me. For instance, anyone who attacks me for posting about God and Satan is perpetuating toxic shame, trying to use shame (not guilt) to make me feel bad or "less than." THAT is toxic – attacking me and saying I am bad because my life, opinions and spirituality are unacceptable to them. I am not surprised many researchers don't see a need for shame. It's because they don't see a need for God either.

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  • Jody Moore

    Thanks Dr. Brown – I just wrote a blog post on this topic inspired by your book and your work. I am so in love with your work. Thanks for doing it and sharing it with all of us. http://blog.boldnewmom.com/?p=288

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  • bob

    this was very toching i cried

  • bob

    i am 8 months pregnant

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  • John Hankey

    I think “guilt is adaptive and helpful” is a bit vague. At the end of the day, all unpleasant feelings and emotions are a pointer, a way to get our attention. They indicate our body’s attempt to garner and secure a deeper, positive feeling of fulfillment and well-being…a feeling that can only be experienced when we surrender and let go at progressively deeper levels. It requires commitment to being mindful and present. So how can we say that one unpleasant feeling (guilt) is “adaptive and useful” and others (shame) are not “helpful and productive?” Both are feelings and frequencies that arise when the body-mind is in a state of conflict and therefore perpetuating energetic blocks. All unpleasant feelings are useful when they are deeply listened to, worked with, integrated and allowed to be transmuted.

    • Scott Pierce

      I was about to reply to this comment in disagreement; however, when I began constructing my thoughts, I found myself more in agreement. I believe you would recognize (big assumption) that the processes of “transmuting” the two is different. Also, the metaphysics of guilt and shame are worlds apart in that guilt should prompt a positive feedback loop whereby we change a behavior or rectify a situation while shame necessitates we change a pattern of thought about ourselves.

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  • Steve

    How about, “Shame is connected to who you are and guilt is connected to what you do/did. I can’t claim this as my own and I can’t remember who it was that quoted it . Anyway, it is an interesting perspective. Shame in this sense is immensely destructive. If we are shamed the solution is we need a better identity.

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  • Peter

    Wow Dr brown – I lived under shame and all the resultant effects you have mentioned for nearly fifty years. When it went and I was able to see the shame had nothing to do with me my life changed massively. You would not believe how oppressive it is. I haven’t done anything I feel guilty about but think if I do it is so easy to repair it is a joke. People who have not seen shame simply cannot understand what it is – it is life stifling.

  • Nick L

    Hi brene, I am listening to your sessions on audible and one of the points you make as to highlight the difference between GuiltShame is that of “deserving” but you dont quite explain which one is which. ie. Do we deserve shame, or do we deserve guilt? If i had to pick I would feel we seem Ok to process guilt because it behaviour we observe and feel responsible for, so we can attempt to fix. Shame hurts like when being bullied, you dont deserve it but it hurts deeply to the core self as you have no control over it. Am i on the right track or did I miss this point in “power or vulnerability”.

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  • Peter

    Dear Dr Brene,
    I haven’t read all the comments to your note about Guilt & Shame, but aren’t guilt & shame the natural process we go through when we have actually done something wrong and own up to it, even if it is only to ourselves.? I realize that not responding to these promptings from within can lead to a lot of personal destruction… The issue of shame has been on my mind for many a year now,… I feel like I have suffered shame in particular for a crime one of my children committed. Isn’t the word ‘disgrace’ somehow associated with shame in your understanding of things?
    Sincerely, Peter.

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