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Shame and guilt: definitions, similarities and differences

Shame and guilt

Shame and guilt are two different reactions to misbehaviour or in relation to oneself. The similarities and differences between shame and guilt are described below.



“Shame” refers to the feeling of embarrassment or humiliation caused by a perceived failure, inadequacy or violation of social norms. It involves a negative evaluation of the whole self and leads to feelings of worthlessness and a desire to hide or withdraw from others. Shame is often related to one’s identity and feeling flawed or defective. It can be experienced as a reaction to internal and external triggers and is closely linked to self-confidence and self-image.

Shame is, therefore, primarily an emotional experience of negative self-evaluation. Shame is a relational feeling arising from violating a relationship with others. It often includes a feeling of damage to the self. Shame is, therefore, a mental judgement and an emotional reaction to interpersonal situations. Chronic shame refers to a persistent vulnerability that requires constant self-protection and harms relationships. It then leads to self-blame, resentment, hatred, and limited empathy.


Toxic shame

Toxic shame refers to a paralysing and pervasive form of shame that is persistent and deeply woven into a person’s self-image. Feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, and self-loathing characterise it. Unlike healthy or adaptive shame, which motivates people to rethink their actions and make amends, toxic shame is destructive and does not lead to personal growth or other positive changes.

Toxic shame often arises from experiences of relationship or childhood trauma such as abuse, neglect or devaluation. These early experiences lead to a fragmented self-image and a distorted perception of one’s worth. They cause negative self-beliefs, self-hatred and a pervasive feeling of being fundamentally flawed. Those who suffer from toxic shame regularly self-sabotage, have difficulty forming healthy relationships and are constantly afraid of rejection and judgement.

Toxic shame exceeds any healthy level of shame or guilt. It is the result of cumulative and unprocessed experiences of shame. Overcoming toxic shame requires therapy that focuses on building self-compassion, challenging negative self-perceptions and developing healthier patterns of self-evaluation.

Chronic shame

Toxic shame and chronic shame both essentially stem from relational dysfunction and a deep sense of unworthiness, but toxic shame is more severe. It is often associated with early traumatic experiences, while chronic shame is a pattern of relational dysfunction and isolation that affects people throughout their lives.

Toxic and chronic shame is primarily a relational experience. They arise from broken or toxic relationships and a deep sense of unworthiness to be liked, valued or even loved by others. Both are deeply ingrained in the self-image and are more pervasive and paralysing than healthy or adaptive shame. Both turn any shameful moment or event into an overwhelming experience of self-loathing and worthlessness, making it almost impossible to process certain shame-inducing situations.

Chronic shame is a phenomenon that develops regardless of age when someone regularly experiences relationship breakdowns and, therefore, experiences lasting feelings of isolation, despair and unworthiness.

Toxic shame and chronic shame are closely related but differ in their nature and impact on the individual. One difference between toxic shame and chronic shame lies in their causes: Childhood trauma in the case of toxic shame and a mismatch between the need for closeness and attachment and a partner’s ability to respond in the case of chronic shame.

Another difference is that chronic shame can take various forms that undermine well-being and prevent empathic relationships (the three faces of shame). It can manifest as a feeling of being unworthy, an expectation of failure, and a demand for perfect performance.


In contrast to shame, guilt is primarily a mental evaluation of behaviour with regard to moral norms. It arises from the realisation that one has violated such a norm and done something wrong. But, of course, this mental self-assessment is not without emotion. Feelings of guilt are associated with tension, remorse and regret but do not necessarily touch the core of a personality.

Feelings of guilt or remorse for a particular action or behaviour seen as wrong or immoral involve a sense of personal responsibility for harm or wrongdoing and a desire to make amends or ask for forgiveness. In contrast to shame, guilt, therefore, focuses on evaluating one’s own behaviour and not on the whole self. Guilt causes people to examine their behaviour and deal with the consequences of their actions.

Toxic guilt 

Toxic guilt refers to a state of guilt that is disproportionate, persistent and damaging to one’s well-being. It is always interspersed with shame, self-blame and a sense of being inherently wrong or flawed. Unlike healthy guilt, which is based on a moral judgement of one’s actions and can be resolved through remorse, toxic guilt is often rooted in chronic shame. Feeling like a lousy self is an intense experience, even if the actions or behaviours in question do not deserve such harsh self-judgement. Toxic guilt is about self-punishment and self-devaluation rather than taking responsibility and making amends. People who struggle with toxic guilt may have difficulty forgiving themselves and may constantly seek validation of their own goodness. This type of guilt can be overwhelming and can significantly affect mental and emotional well-being.

Shame and guilt: similarities

Despite these differences, shame and guilt also have some similarities. Both emotions are adaptable and have a social function. They promote prosocial behaviour, strengthen social bonds and support personal growth and development. Shame and guilt are moral emotions that relate to social norms and values. They are also linked and can trigger or reinforce each other.

Both shame and guilt are negative emotions that arise from misbehaviour or interpersonal harm. They can be experienced simultaneously and overlap in certain situations. Both shame and guilt can be associated with feelings of remorse and regret. They can also both serve as motivators for personal growth and change.

Shame and guilt: differences

The main difference between shame and guilt lies in their fundamental nature. Shame is primarily an emotional experience that involves a negative evaluation of the self, whereas guilt is a cognitive evaluation of behaviour.

Shame is a relational feeling, whereas guilt is more focused on the behaviour itself. Shame can be excruciating and impact one’s identity, whereas guilt is often seen as a healthier state of self. Shame is associated with dissolution of the self and vulnerability in relation to others, whereas guilt is associated with recognising and taking responsibility for one’s actions. When we tend to feel shame, we are more likely to blame others and view them with dislike or hatred, whereas, with guilt, we are more likely to relate our emotions to ourselves and express them empathetically and constructively.


Ashley, Patti. 2020. Shame-Informed Therapy: Treatment Strategies to Overcome Core Shame and Reconstruct the Authentic Self. Eau Claire, Wisconsin: Pesi Publishing & Media.

DeYoung, Patricia A. 2021. Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: Healing Right Brain Relational Trauma. New York: Routledge.

Klein, Melanie. 1984. Love, Guilt, and Reparation, and Other Works, 1921–1945. New York: The Free Press.

Lammers, Maren. 2020. Scham und Schuld – Behandlungsmodule für den Therapiealltag. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Stemper, Dirk. 2023. Toxic Guilt and Shame: The Practical Workbook for Self-Acceptance. Berlin: Psychologie Halensee.

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