What is the difference between guilt and shame?

The emotions of guilt and shame are often confused and I devoted an entire chapter to these emotions in my first Amazon Best Seller Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not Your Feelings.

While different from each other as we discuss below, both of these feelings are elicited when an action is taken that is viewed as

  • wrong,
  • violating some value, or
  • hurting another person.

The Emotions as Tools Model notes that all emotions are tools which help us understand how we perceive what is happening to us and which can, with practice, be mastered to help us interact with our surroundings in a more adaptive manner.

A quick overview

The message of guilt is that “I have done something wrong.”

The message of shame is that “There is something wrong with me.”

The bigger picture


As a tool, the emotion of guilt informs us that we have violated a standard of behavior.  This standard can be internal and based on our own values or an external standard of behavior.

In other words, you feel guilty when you realize you have done something wrong. This is an error of commission.

You might also experience guilt if you failed to take some action you reasonably could have been expected to do.  This is an error of omission.

Both of these two cases are included in the message of guilt.

This is what a court is saying when you are found “guilty”of an offense. Because you did something or you were negligent and failed to take action, you will be punished.

As a motivator, the emotion of guilt moves us in the direction of taking responsibility for and taking action to correct the “wrong” that we have done.

In this sense, guilt is an adaptive emotion which facilitates social interaction.

Let’s look at the phrase… “You are making me feel guilty.”.

You might say this if someone is talking to you about something you have done, or something you might not have done, that they might view as inappropriate.

While no one can make you feel anything, the point of what they are saying to you is that you need to take a look at what you did, take personal responsibility for it, do what you need to do to make it right, and learn from your actions so that you do not do it again.


While all emotions are adaptive in that we can learn from them, master them and develop psychologically, shame is an emotion that…

  • can lead to destructive outcomes,
  • is often unwittingly elicited, and
  • should probably be avoided or replaced by other feelings under most circumstances

Shame implies self-repudiation.  The message of shame is: “There is something wrong with me.”

We know from history that if an individual violated cultural norms, he (or she) might be publicly shamed, branded, or even excommunicated.  The message was that not only was the behavior unacceptable but the individual was tainted.

I will give you two examples of shame.

Many of the young women I worked with in the Department of Corrections-Juvenile Division had committed some heinous crimes.  Based on their crimes, they experienced intense shame.  They had concluded that, based on their crimes, they were damaged beyond repair.  For most of these young women, this was not true.  While horrific, their crimes could often be understood in terms of situational conditions which led to the crime.  They were still responsible for their actions and were punished for what they did. But, and this is critical, I had to help them realize that while their actions were “monstrous” they were not monsters.  I had to help them move past shame or they would not grow psychologically.

A second, and more common example that you might hear in a park, in a restaurant, or, possibly, your own home is a parent saying to their child in reacting to some undesirable behavior, “You are a bad boy (or girl). What is wrong with you?”

While I am not suggesting that if you have ever said this to your child, you done irreparable damage.  No, you have not.  I even have said it, in anger, once or twice.  Well, maybe it just slipped out?

What I am saying is that you should carefully think about what your child is hearing you say.  This is not always the same as the words you are using.

As a humorous example, think about the next time you see an acquaintance and ask, “How’s it going?” The intent of your words is usually to acknowledge the other person and maybe, or maybe not, start a conversation.  The typical expected response is, “Fine, and you?”

But, let’s suppose the response you get is, “I’m glad you asked.”  And they proceed to tell you everything that has happened to them. TMI.  They have heard you asking them to fill you in on all the intimate details of their life.  Same words on your part but the message they received is very different.

If you react to your child’s inappropriate behavior by focusing on the child, you may be communicating to them that they are somehow damaged.  The emotion they may begin to embrace is shame.

If your goal is to eliminate the unwanted behavior, then that needs to be the focus of your interaction with the child.

When someone has done something wrong, guilt is an appropriate and adaptive emotion which can, and does, motivate that person to correct the injustice they have committed.

Shame, on the other hand, is an emotion that is difficult to justify, often hard to overcome if it is deeply embraced, and insidious in its potential effects on the self-image of the person who feels damaged,or irreparably flawed.

I welcome your comments.




What to do when it feels like anger but isn’t.

In my most recent Amazon Best Seller Book, Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool, I discuss the Anger Mastery Cycle.

The Anger Mastery Cycle:

By the way, you can download a copy of the Anger Mastery Cycle by scrolling up to the top of the page, looking over to the Right hand side of the page and clicking on the “Anger Mastery Cycle PDF”.

Once you have labelled the emotion you are experiencing as anger and moved into anger management which involves lowering your arousal and creating both physical and psychological distance between you and the perceived threat, you can then move into anger mastery.

You master your anger when you take a moment to assess and validate the nature of the threat.

There are only two options here:

  • You are expressing anger and there is a genuine threat.
  • You are expressing anger but there is no threat.

If the threat is genuine and your initial perception is accurate, you stay angry and you choose how you will respond to the threat.

If you are angry and there is no threat, there are three possibilities:

  1. You have misunderstood or misperceived the situation in which you find yourself
  2. You are using anger as a secondary emotion
  3. You are using anger as an instrumental emotion

If you have misunderstood or misperceived the situation, you can change your thoughts about what the interaction in which you find yourself. When you do this, the anger goes away because there is no threat.  This is what you want to do when your understanding of an interaction changes.

Secondary and Instrumental Anger

This is the real focus of this post.

Both secondary and instrumental anger look like valid anger but do not function as valid anger.  There are at least three reasons for this.

  1. Definition:

Valid anger is an emotion, the function of which is to alert you and prepare you to deal with a threat you believe you can eliminate.

Secondary anger is an emotion that is deployed to substitute for another emotion you would rather not feel

Instrumental anger is deployed as a blunt force instrument designed to manipulate another person into doing what you want them to do.

2. Threat:

With valid anger, there is an observable threat.

With  both secondary and instrumental anger, there may not be an observable threat to your goals, physical integrity, or basic values.

3. Function:

The function of valid anger is to prepare you for battle.

The function of secondary anger is to insulate you from experiencing uncomfortable emotions.

The function of instrumental anger is compensate for inadequate social skills and facilitate you getting your way.

Some explanation:

Anger, by evolutionary design, is a powerful emotion.  This is true in both how we experience anger and in how our anger is experienced by those with whom we interact.

This is the key to understanding secondary and instrumental anger.

Secondary, or substitute, anger.

For men, primarily, emotions such as hurt, anxiety, and guilt are experienced as uncomfortable. With these emotions,  a man can experience himself as vulnerable, exposed and even weak. Vulnerability and exposure, while part of the message of hurt, anxiety and guilt which can be utilized to master these emotions, typically elicits a desire to avoid these uncomfortable emotions. Men are not used to these feelings.

Anger, on the other hand, elicits a feeling of power.  When angry, men are prepared to take on the world and go to war.  In addition, men are socialized to experience and are usually comfortable with anger.

Consequently, a man is motivated to substitute anger for feelings of hurt, anxiety and guilt. Hence, anger as a  secondary emotion.

  • The upside of secondary anger is that a man can avoid uncomfortable feelings.
  • The downside of secondary anger is that it is dishonest and that it prevents its user from dealing with the issues at hand about which the adaptive emotions of hurt, anxiety and guilt are alerting him and attempting to prepare him to address.

Instrumental, dishonest, or manipulative, anger.

Anger, by evolutionary design, prepared us to deal with a survival based threat. We were set up for fight or flight.

Well, “fighting”, which involves confrontation, can take many forms.  We can go to war and physically engage the aggressor. Or, we can display our superior force and hope the aggressor backs off or disengages.

  • You see this in movies where an aggressor assesses the armies of an enemy and decides whether armed aggression will be successful or not.
  • You can see it when you look at videos of “aggressive facial expressions of  pacific islanders”.
  • And,  you can see it in news stories of people backing away from someone on the street who appears to be angry and aggressive.

Anger, with its accompanying facial and physical expressions, communicates the message that you are a formidable and powerful individual who should not be messed with. Our cave dwelling ancestors may have lived to fight another day if their display of anger “convinced” a marauding predator to leave and go somewhere else.

Based on this function of anger, men, more so than women but women as well, can use a display of anger to manipulate another person to change their behavior and conform in order to avoid the wrath of the “angry” person.

Please note that I am not talking about the display of valid anger.  If there is a valid threat, you experience and display anger, and the threat is neutralized, you have mastered your anger. This is honest, or valid, anger.

However, when you are not angry because there is no valid threat and you display anger because you know the other person will submit to you, then you are using anger to manipulate that person. You are using anger as an instrument to accomplish a specific end.  This is dishonest or manipulative anger.

Hence, it is instrumental anger.

Your next step

If your goal is to master your own anger or the anger of another person, the most important question you can ask, in the presence of anger, is this: “What is the perceived threat?”

If you are using anger as secondary or instrumental emotion, it will become clear to you that there either is no significant threat or that you are experiencing an uncomfortable or unfamiliar feeling informing you that an issue you are facing person needs to be addressed.

  • Hurt: Someone has done something that leaves you feeling interpersonally wounded or damaged and you need to address this with them.
  • Anxiety: There is a future possible threat that you need to evaluate and possibly prepare to confront.
  • Guilt: You have done something wrong that you need to take responsibility for and move to address and make right.
  • Manipulation: You are using anger to manipulate another person either because anger seems more efficient in the moment or you lack either the power or the interpersonal skills to interact with this person and facilitate their changing their behavior.

Once you identify your anger that isn’t anger, you can choose to approach the situation in which you find yourself in a different manner.

You might have to acquire some new skill sets to do this.  But, it can be done.

If the secondary or instrumental anger is being displayed by someone elce, questioning the nature of the threat should begin the process of understanding and mastering their anger for your and their benefit.  Just be aware that a man covering up feelings of vulnerability with secondary may not be willing to give up his cover.

I welcome your comments.



A comprehensive video overview of emotions and emotions theories

I am including this video from YouTube’s Crash Course on Psychology for any of you who might want more indepth information on what emotions are and the psychological theories which attempt to explain them.

Full disclosure:  This is a 10 minute and 50 second video. While the information is quite good, it is somewhat long.  So, if you aren’t really interested in diving this deep into emotions and emotions theory, skip this post and we’ll see you next week.

How Healthy Is It to Save Anger?

This is an interesting question that was asked on Quora.com. The question presupposes that anger can be “saved”.

For this to occur, anger would have to be a source of energy like electricity that could be stored or it might be an emotional placeholder that could be held in stasis and returned to at a later date much like a document that is “saved” until it is retrieved to be worked on or utilized in some fashion.

The quick answer is that you can’t save anger and chronic anger is unhealthy.

What actually is anger?

  • Anger is a primary emotion, the function of which is to alert us to and prepare us to deal with a threat we believe we can eliminate if we throw enough force at it.
  • Anger, as an emotion, is a primitive threat detector. This is how anger evolved, how it worked when we lived in caves, and how it continues to operate today.
  • Anger prepares us to go to battle. In “cave days”, all threats were survival based (would kill us) so being revved up for war was necessary, appropriate, and life saving.
  • Today, our threats tend to be psychological so, while it may initially be useful to prepare for battle, studies show that it is counterproductive and even unhealthy to stay in a constant state of anger.
  • Anger is a motivator and, within a specific context, provides us with the energy necessary to confront and overpower a threat.

How does Anger happen and what are its consequences?

The emotion of anger follows a specific cycle.

In my most recent Amazon best selling book Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool, I discuss the Anger Mastery Cycle which starts with the unconscious scanning of your surroundings for threat, going into fight or flight when a threat is perceived, managing your anger by reducing your arousal and creating both a physical and psychological space between you and the “threat” and then mastering your anger by assessing the nature and validity of the “threat” and choosing an effective response.

By the way, you can download a copy of the anger mastery cycle and the first two chapters of my book by scrolling up to the Welcome post.

Secondly, anger prepares your body for war.

Chemicals are injected into your body which heighten your awareness, reduce your unimportant bodily functions such as digestion, and increase the ability of your blood to clot.  If you were facing a saber toothed tiger who wanted to eat you, you would want to be able to focus your attention on the beast, be protected from blood loss, be able to run away from the danger and so forth.  You wouldn’t care about digesting your lunch if you were about to become his lunch. These chemicals also give you the energy to fight off the threat.

It is important to note that many studies have noted that these physical changes when associated with chronic anger can have severe negative impacts on your body. In other words, chronic anger can make you sick.

Thirdly, you cannot “save” anger.

The emotion of anger is situation specific and is elicited when you perceive a threat. There is no organ in the body which stores anger.

Anger is elicited when you subconsciously perceive a threat or you “recreate” that threat in your mind when you dwell on a previous event. While it may seem like you have “saved” your anger, in fact, you generate “new” anger every time you revisit the threat. And, if you generate new anger often enough, it is experienced as chronic.

So, what can you do?

Well, if you perceive a valid threat, you can use the energy of your immediate anger to develop and execute a plan to deal with the threat. This is how you master and deploy your anger as a strategic tool. This assumes that you are in a position to directly deal with the threat.

Sometimes, however, as I discovered when I asked many professional women about anger, it is not always possible to directly deal with a threat. This is because there may be unwanted consequences to the direct expression of appropriate anger or you do not have the status to directly deal with the threat. If this is the case, you use the energy of your anger to plan an indirect approach to the threat. You are strategically using your anger but you are not directly expressing it. This is not the same as suppressing your anger which would involve invalidating it and pushing it down inside of you. Suppressing your anger can have both unwanted physical and psychological consequences.

If you experience chronic anger, I suggest you take some time to really look at the unresolved threat you keep reliving and develop a plan to either deal with it or accept that there is nothing you can do about it, forgive the person who hurt you, and get on with your life. Forgiving, by the way, is not absolving this person of responsibility for their actions. Rather, forgiving another person only means that you psychologically remove yourself from, or let go of, that person rather than carry them around with you in your head every where you go.

I worked with young women, all of whom had been physically, sexually, and/or emotionally abused. Forgiving was the only way they could grow psychologically and move on. Again, this is not absolving anyone of responsibility for their actions. Nor, is it forgetting any healthy lessons that one needs to remember from past experiences. Nor, is it putting something in the past and not taking any action in the present to prevent any future actions from taking place. Forgiveness only means that you are no longer negatively impacting yourself regarding a situation you can’t change. If you go to March 2017, in the archives above, you can access a post on forgiveness.

When you forgive another individual, you let go of your anger as there is no immediate threat that you can go to war with and eliminate.  However, as you want to remain alert to any future threat, you could become committed and determined. You may choose to experience the emotion of commitment in that you are determined to never submit yourself to the kinds of threats you experienced in the past.  Determination will motivate you just as much as anger will and it is a more effective and sustainable emotion.

In summary, anger, as an emotion, is situation specific and, while anger energizes and motivates you to fight off a threat, the emotion doesn’t act as a “place holder” and the energy that is generated in your body can’t be saved.

I welcome your comments.