Shame and guilt are two emotions people experience, and should therefore also be functional emotions. That we generally experience them as something negative may be clear. In simple terms, shame has a limiting effect: It prevents us from ‘going over the top’, and in that sense it has a protective intention. As with all emotions, shame only becomes problematic when it is overly limiting or not present at all. This could be due to all kinds of factors: Poor or misplaced emotion regulation or inappropriate appraisals or expectations, to name but two. To put it differently, shame as a normal reaction isn’t problematic and is functional, just as the normal experience of fear prevents us from doing potentially dangerous things. In a similar way, guilt is adaptive too, as it stimulates us to restore matters when we have done something inappropriate.
In this article we look at how shame and guilt influence our experience and behaviour. We start by making a distinction between them, as the two emotions are easily lumped onto the same pile. After that we will review specifically how people deal with shame.