How to Deal With Shame in Four Steps

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Atlas of the Heart" by Brené Brown. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the difference between guilt and shame? Where do shame and guilt stem from?

According to Brené Brown, shame and guilt are similar emotions. Brown says that shame is feeling inadequate and unworthy as a person, while guilt is feeling bad for something we’ve done rather than for who we are.

Here’s how Brené Brown explains shame and guilt.

Guilt and Shame

According to Brené Brown, shame and guilt are quite similar. She defines shame as the feeling that you’re an inherently bad or flawed person. When we feel shame, we might believe that we’re unworthy of love or incapable of change. Brown says we all carry shame, and we don’t like to talk about it. However, shame thrives in isolation, so refusing to acknowledge our shame only gives it more power over us. Bringing shame out into the open allows us—and those we love—to confront it with empathy and compassion.

A side note: People often use embarrassment interchangeably with shame, but Brown says that it’s much less serious and much shorter-lived than true shame. Embarrassment occurs when something makes us feel foolish or uncomfortable, but not like we’re bad people. For example, dripping sauce onto a nice shirt is embarrassing, not shameful.

Humiliation is what we feel when someone else insults or disparages us. Brown says it’s a similar state to shame, but the difference is that humiliation comes from an outside source. With humiliation, we don’t feel like we deserve the feelings of unworthiness and isolation—although that doesn’t make the feelings go away. 

Finally, guilt is also similar to shame, but focuses (appropriately) on what we’ve done instead of who we are. Brown says that guilt gives us not only the ability but also the desire to make positive changes. 

For instance, someone who gets fired for missing work too often might say, “I didn’t work hard enough” instead of, “I’m too lazy.” The difference is that not working hard enough is a specific and solvable problem, whereas laziness is a character trait that seems much harder to change. 

(Shortform note: On her personal website, Brown talks more about the difference between shame and guilt. She believes that we should use guilt, not shame, to motivate ourselves and others—in other words, we should point out when people do something wrong but not resort to attacking their identities with insults and labels.)

Brené Brown on Shame and Guilt

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Here's what you'll find in our full Atlas of the Heart summary :

  • Brené Brown's guide to the many emotions and mental states that people feel
  • Explanations of 87 emotions, along with the situations where you’re likely to encounter them
  • How to form deeper connections with the people around you

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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