People use the words “guilt” and “shame” in different ways. In everyday communication they’re used pretty much interchangeably. And the dictionary definitions aren’t significantly different. For example, shame is “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior,” while guilt is “a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation.”
Both of those involve a painful emotional response to having done something wrong. The word “shame” however has more of a connotation of personal failure (hence, “humiliation”) and is also described in stronger emotional terms.
In psychology, the two terms are used in very different ways. “Guilt” is used to refer to painful feelings of remorse. That is, we’ve done something that’s objectively or subjectively wrong and we feel bad about it. “Shame” is used to refer to fundamental feelings of unworthiness. It’s a sense of being fundamentally flawed, and that we, at our core, are “bad.”
The Buddhist word that corresponds to “guilt” is hiri. I’m going to use the word “remorse” to translate it, though, because even though the word guilt has that technical sense of “consciousness of having done wrong” as opposed to shame’s “consciousness of being wrong at one’s core,” the word remorse is very clearly about feeling bad because you’ve done something wrong.
In the Buddhist community I’m part of, the terms guilt and shame are commonly used the other way around. In fact the majority of Buddhist translators have used “shame” to translate hiri. That’s possibly because Christians tend to use the word “guilt” (sometimes in the sense of fundamental unworthiness — more about that below) and so various translators wanted to emphasize that Buddhism sees things differently. In this article I’ll stick with the widely accepted, modern psychological, use of the terms.
Shame doesn’t play a role in Buddhist practice. The idea of us being flawed in our very essence doesn’t work well in a tradition that says you have no essence. From the Buddhist point of view, everything that makes up “us” is impermanent. Yes, we all contain unskillful (akusala) drives and impulses, based on greed, hatred, and delusion. But those are not inherent parts of us. They are impermanent processes, and those processes can be ended.
In Buddhist psychology remorse (hiri) is a skillful rather than an unskillful mental state. This may be surprising! We usually think of “skillful” mental states as being pleasant, and remorse is definitely not pleasant. In fact it can be rather painful. So what does it mean to say that remorse is skillful?
Remorse/hiri is considered to be a spiritually useful emotion — an emotion that leads to our happiness and well-being — because it realigns us with our ideals. It’s uncomfortable, but good for us. When we’ve not acted at our best, or way below our best — when we’ve hurt someone, or been untruthful, or let someone down, for example — and we then become aware that this is not how we want to behave, a painful feeling can arise. This is remorse. This is the painful sense that our behavior has departed from the values we hold dear. And this helps us reconnect with those values.
We often lose touch with our deeper values in daily life. We’re complex beings. Yes, we want to be kind to people and yes, we want to be honest. But some parts of the brain are running on a very old operating system — shared with crocodiles and wolf-packs — that tells us to lash out when we’re threatened. Let’s call that Brain 1.0.
And we have parts of the brain running on a somewhat newer, but still old, operating system that tells us not to jeopardize our standing with our “pack.” This is an operating system (“Brain 2.0”) that we share with wolves, but not with crocodiles. So sometimes we lie, exaggerating our accomplishments, minimizing our flaws, trying to make others look bad so that we’ll look better.
And then we have Brain 3.0, which is more truly human, and which fully recognizes the value of cooperation, kindness, and is able to reflect on what constitutes a good and ethical life. It’s able to formulate ideals for us to live by and ethical principles for us to hold ourselves to. Although I call this part of the brain “truly human” it’s not lacking in other mammals. It’s just more developed in humans, who have a very large neocortex — the part of the brain in which this form of morality exists.
So remorse is when the neocortex (Brain 3.0) recognizes that we’ve been acting on the basis of fear, greed, or ill will — behaviors that are generated in Brains 1.0 and 2.0, and sees that those actions aren’t going to contribute to the wellbeing and happiness of ourselves or others.
Remorse, for it to be healthy Buddhist hiri, has to be focused on the act we’ve done. We feel bad because something was not a good thing to do. Remorse, in a way, is a form of self-metta (self-kindness), since we’re reminding ourselves of what does and doesn’t contribute to our own happiness.
And here’s where remorse (or guilt, if you want) is different from shame. Shame is focused on us, not on our actions. Shame may well be triggered by a specific thing we’ve done wrong, but we go from thinking that we’ve done something “bad” to thinking that we ourselves are “bad.” The “bad” thing we did is seen as proof that we have a “bad” self — perhaps even an essentially bad self. Shame is a form of self-hatred. So while shame and guilt/remorse/hiri may seem similar, they’re actually opposites.
Shame is very often influenced by the idea of original sin, which teaches us that sin is an inherent part of our nature. The Buddha’s view was that our unskillful tendencies are not inherent to us at all. They’re “not me, not mine, not myself.” Some Buddhist traditions emphasize that the mind is inherently pure, but that this purity is obscured by our unskillfulness. This is a much more encouraging way for us to think about ourselves, and many people feel a sense of relief when they come across this very positive view of what it means to be human. Of course even adopting this view that deep down we are good, there’s still a lot of work to do. But it’s easier to do that work when you don’t think that your unskillful tendencies are a fixed part of you, but are just “passing through.”
It’s worth, whenever we feel shame, reminding ourselves that our unskillfulness is something that’s relatively superficial. It’s liberating to recognize this.
And when we feel remorse, we can recognize that this is a healthy and useful response to having acted unskillfully. We don’t have to feel remorse for having felt remorse, which is what I think often happens. When remorse (or even shame) arises can recognize that we’re suffering, and treat our suffering kindly. (This is the practice of self-compassion that I’ve explained elsewhere.)
And we can also do whatever is necessary — confess or apologize, or make amends, to help redress any harm we may have caused and to lighten our emotional load. We let the remorse pass, reconnect with how we’d truly like to be living our lives, and then get on with the business of living with mindfulness and kindness.
(An earlier version of this article used the words “guilt” and “shame” in the way they’re often used by Buddhist translators, and in the community I practice in. I’ve corrected that usage here to bring the terminology into line with the conventional usage. I’ve also opted to use “remorse” as a clearer alternative to “guilt” and as a more accurate translation of hiri.)
I love this post, realizing the difference between doing bad actions (or unskillful, which carries much more self-compassion, and therefore healing IMHO) and being bad made a HUGE difference in my life, it had me realize I already had what I was looking for so long…
I’ve come across the same idea in Brene Brown’s work (https://www.brenebrown.com/my-blog/2013/1/14/shame-v-guilt.html), it’s funny to notice how she expresses the same idea while defining shame and guilt’s meaning the other way round…
Yes, the terminology we use doesn’t much matter as long as we’re making the distinction and we’re clear about what we mean. But for me, phrases like “Catholic guilt” and “survivor’s guilt” are so deeply rooted that it makes much more sense to regard “guilt” as the less rational and more self-judgmental of the two terms.
I can very well relate to that, both words carry quite a lot of self-judgment in french (my native language) too.
That’s why I liked so much the use of unskillful to qualify “bad” behaviors. It carries a lot of relief as it doesn’t question a person’s fundamental willingness to do their best.
I am immediately attracted to information about guilt, because I seem to bring that into my (Tibetan Buddhist) practice constantly. I became a Buddhist and later became disabled. At first I spent many (if not most) hours of my day in practice. Then, due to worsening pain and grief over the death of my oldest son, practice (nearly always on my mind) became harder to sustain. It is a vicious (truly) cycle as, while the rational part of me knew that much practice (such as my Ikebana) occurs off of the cushion. Yet shame from a day when I was too painful or too depressed to get to my shrine room would carry into the formal practice the next day. Often, if I can do no more, I sit before sleep in practice. Yet my monkey mind cannot give “credit” for less than perfect practice. This, of course, makes any glimpses of right very few and far between. It is, as if, I feel undeserving. It was helpful to see the above;I suspect that many of us lose what we have, punishing ourselves for not being who we believe we should be becoming. Expectations get confused with aspiration. Why, knowing this, can I not fix it?
In studies of psychology, it’s been shown that for there to be a healthy relationship appreciative statements have to outnumber critical statements five to one. I suspect that for many of us our relationship with ourselves is in the reverse proportions. So I’d suggest that you more consciously drop into the mind phrases like “It’s OK not to be perfect” or “The only place I can start is where I am; where I am in the perfect place to be starting from.” And the metta phrases, “May I be well, may I be happy” (or for others, “May all beings be well, may all beings be happy”) will help build a healthier relationship with yourself.
You should watch out also for language that traps and limits you. For example you wrote “Why can I not fix it?” This is doubly unhelpful because not only have you assumed you “can’t” change (as opposed to not having yet learned how to change) but you’re asking “why?” As soon as you ask a question like “why am I like this” you will come up with a bunch of answers, even if you don’t realize it. So you’re building up your negative self view.
In fact in asking me “Why can I not fix it?” you’re asking me to confirm your negative self view. You want me to tell you why you’re incapable of changing your life, xhich I’m not going to do because I don’t accept the premise that you can’t change. Why not ask, “What can I do to change this?” That at least implies that you want to change things, rather than asking for my permission not to change (which is what you did). Basically, you’ve been talking yourself into hopelessness and helplessness.
You can change your thoughts (some of them at least) so why not choose thoughts that are actually helpful. Instead of saying “I can’t do this” say “I haven’t yet found a way to do this.” Instead of asking me to confirm “Why can I not fix this?” ask “What can I do to change this?” (I don’t like the word “fix.” You’re not broken. You’ve just learned a bunch of habits that create pain. There’s nothing to stop you learning habits that free you from pain.)
This was really helpful – thank you ?
Actually, I said, “knowing” (my negative habitual tendencies, and knowing that I deserve (as much as any being) to be well and caring for myself, can I not fix this cycle. I believe that some of it is as irrational as blaming myself for the death of my son. Yet, part of me knows that 1)it was his karma and 2) he had a tough, but very good short life. He is likely in a better place (literally) than am I.
I commented, because some of us seem to be able to relax about practice, hoping for a good rebirth. Others, perhaps me (not sure) think that as long as beings suffer we *cannot* be easy on ourselves and need to try to reach enlightenment in one life. This brings guilt and shame, because having suffered acutely ourselves, we don’t want any being to stay in samara. sigh….. or something like that. I get confused about guilt and shame. I know that some is helpful, but perhaps don’t know which is not?
As long as you keep subjecting yourself to “cannots” you’ll remain trapped in unhappiness. You have a choice.
Great perspective , In these times I think it has never been more important to understand mind and body especially the increased stimuli surrounding us (technology , impulse and economics for example) and its effects on shame and guilt. That is two sided of course and can be Skillful or non skillful as you say . Hopefully everyone can find the right balance and know where to go for understanding in these situations.
I think what should be added here is that shame is not always an emotion that shows us where we have been unskillfull or acted unkindly. Sometimes shame is a result of things that are imposed on us by society. eg. shame for being single, a solo mother, divorced, poor, a drug addict etc. Brene Brown writes about this a lot and offers an interesting perspective. Sometimes shame is not useful, other than it might show us that we are stuck with negative thoughts about ourselves that we need to work on.
That’s true. It’s important to develop clarity of view (drshti/ditthi) so that we can see whether our shame is based on an ethical sensibility based on natural ethics, or whether it’s just a conventional morality, imposed on us from outside.
Hi Bodhipaksa, thank you for this blog. I liked the article you wrote on guilt.
Most people feel guilt for things they have said or done in the past, but I feel a load of guilt in the other way around–for *not* having done something. For instance, not sticking up for myself when someone was being pushy, verbally rude, taking advantage of their status to get their own way, etc. I constantly kick myself and rehash ways I should have stuck up for myself. These scenarios occur over and over no matter how nice I am, that I feel like I should start acting rude. In addition, this may sound a bit severe, but I realized I have begun to imagine mutilating myself with items I have used–a needle for sewing or knife for cooking.
I have begun studying Buddhism approximately 1 month ago, and I’ve been searching for something similar to my situation where I can apply the practice, but I cannot seem to find anything related to guilt on things I have not done. People would never think I have this issue inside me because I show the very happy person on the outside.
On a positive note, I am getting so much relief from studying Buddhism every day in other parts of my life–mental medicine. Although I believe in a supreme Being, Christianity never clicked with me since it’s introduction to me years ago. It always seemed to be a continual self-depreciation, telling me how I am “bad” and I will be thrown into the depths of hell if I don’t repent. Buddhism has given me relief in knowing the good things I start doing now will give way to better things in future lives to come, and through Buddha’s stories, I learn exactly what I should be doing. It’s a more positive and uplifting message.
First, I apologize for the long delay in replying to you. I had an exceptionally busy summer, and I just couldn’t keep up with the volume of comments on the blog, especially since there were a lot of longer comments, which it takes a long time to read, never mind respond to.
Second, I’m sorry to hear that you’re suffering in this way. I actually don’t think it makes any difference whether you feel guilt about something you did or something you didn’t do. In both cases you have a thought or memory (“I did/didn’t do something”) that leads to a painful feeling, which leads to more thoughts.
My practice for dealing with this is primarily one of self-compassion — recognizing that there is pain present and responding to it compassionately. I’ve written about the approach I take in a number of places, but this article or this webinar recording might help.
Feel free to get back to me if you have any follow-up questions.
All the best,
How about feeling shame because you were open, and tried to reach for someone, and were rejected and/or humiliated?
What’s necessary at those times, Janis, is to practice self-compassion. We have to acknowledge the pain we’re feeling, and to respond to it with kindness. Only then can we move on. I have a step-by-step guide to self-compassion here.
This is interesting. My perspective is also the exact opposite as mentioned by another yogi. For me, Guilt is associated with an act and shame is how I feel about who I am. I can make amends for an act but the shame I learned as I grew up is another matter. It took years of practice to realize that shame was the driving force behind how I lived my life and many of the actions I took. One day I realized that I thought I had to be your friend because “you allowed me to breathe the same air as you!” It was a huge AHA moment. It has opened me to how I had been perpetuating the shame by beating myself up with guilt. Shame can still rears its head (Mara?) but practice helps me see it for what it is, and It no longer rules my life.