What is the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?

Woman understanding the difference between guilt and shame in addiction recovery.One of the first major lessons of addiction recovery is learning what addiction is, how it affects the mind and body and why addiction is so difficult to defeat on our own. Amidst these lessons – and through participation in 12-Step programs – many people in recovery begin to understand the effect their addictive patterns of behavior have had on others. This realization comes with a lot of pain, as it’s hard to contemplate what our loved ones have felt as we’ve lied, stolen money, argued with them or abandoned our responsibilities in favor of using drugs or alcohol. When we think about the pain we’ve caused others – as well as the pain we’ve inflicted on ourselves – we’re bound to experience some guilt and shame; but what is the difference?

In 2016, the Huffington Post described guilt as a “quick pin prick”. They explained that guilt is often that voice in our head that says, “Hey there! Don’t do that again!”. With guilt, we tend to focus more on ourselves. Those in recovery may begin to feel guilt over the fact that it was themselves who enacted all of these behaviors. With guilt, we learn a lesson that we definitely shouldn’t ever do that, again. Shame, on the other hand, takes it all a step further. After those feelings of guilt have lingered for a while, those in recovery may begin to associate themselves as being bad people because of the pain they’ve caused others. Rather than simply taking it as a lesson learned, they begin to really focus on the actions they performed and what that did to the people they love. Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor, told the Huffington Post,

“Guilt is a feeling we have when we think we’ve done something bad and shame is a feeling we have when we think we ARE bad.”

Through 12-Step programs, those in recovery can explore the relationship between guilt and shame and how these can propel us (and prevent us from succeeding) in our recovery journey.

Cumberland Heights is a nonprofit alcohol and drug-addiction treatment center located on the banks of the Cumberland river in Nashville, Tennessee. On a sprawling 177-acre campus, we are made up of 2 12-Step immersion campuses, 12 outpatient recovery centers and 4 sober living homes. We believe that each person has a unique story to tell – and that’s why we always put the patient first.