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.)