In everyday parlance shame and guilt are pretty much the same thing. They are the painful emotions we feel when we have done something wrong. But George Mason University psychologist June Tangney has identified some important differences between these two emotions that could inform how we raise our children and how we treat criminal offenders. She talked about her research in this fascinating talk on the Research Channel.
In Tangney’s work, she has identified two painful responses to personal wrongdoing. One response is to feel utterly worthless and a desire to hide from other people. This set of feelings she calls “shame.” On the other hand, some of us are more prone to feel empathy with the person who was wronged and a desire to apologize and make restitution. These feelings Tangney identifies as “guilt.”
In 15 years of research, she has found that shame-prone-people have more troubled lives than people who are more prone to guilt. These troubles can be extremely serious, including substance abuse and criminality.
Her final take-home lesson:
There are good ways and bad ways to feel bad. Guilt is the moral emotion of choice. That’s the better way to feel bad. And (yes I was raised a Catholic girl) you don’t have to feel really bad to be a good person.