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How Guilt and Shame Can Work For and Against Us

By HERWriter
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Remember that time you weren’t there for your friend when she needed you most, or that time you led a guy on by going on several dates with no intention of staying with him?

We’ve all experienced guilt, and it never feels good, but it does have a purpose.

A new study from the University of Queensland in Australia found that guilt can play a role in employees remaining committed to their employers. There is a feeling of mutual obligation — if the employer does something for the employee, like provide paychecks consistently, then the employee will feel guilt if she doesn’t live up to her part (which could include leaving).

“Guilt is when people feel bad about a specific behavior, transgression or failure,” said June Tangney, a psychology professor at George Mason University. “It’s different from shame, where people feel badly about themselves.”

“It’s the difference between ‘I did a bad thing and I’m a bad person because of it’ — that’s a shame feeling — versus guilt, where people just say ‘I did a bad thing,” she said. “You can still be a good person and this bad thing needs to be fixed, but it’s not the bad self that needs to be fixed.”

There are more problems associated with shame than guilt, she said.

“The research pretty consistently shows that proneness to feelings of shame about the self is related to psychological problems like depression, anxiety [and] low self-esteem,” Tangney said. “People who are inclined to feel guilt about their behaviors when they have failed or transgressed are actually no more or less likely to be vulnerable to depression, anxiety [and] low self-esteem…”

She said there’s a strong correlation between depression and shame proneness, and people with depression tend to overgeneralize — “I did a bad thing, therefore I’m a bad person.”

People who feel shame don’t want to accept responsibility and try to hide, whereas people who feel guilt are “less likely to become defensive and more likely to take responsibility,” including making apologies and fixing the overall problem, she said.

“I think part of the reason is because the dilemma that’s posed by guilt is much more doable,” Tangney said.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.