Know the Difference between Shame, Guilt, Humiliation and Embarrassment

Let’s get started from the notion that all of these words per se make us feel uncomfortable. Most of us are familiar with these feelings in one way or another, and therefore we are aware of the discomfort they bring. In her collection of lectures called Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown teaches the difference between these four and why it is important to learn to recognize and name them correctly.

Especially the difference between shame and guilt is significant, because it affects the recovery and growth of a person. It is also important to learn to identify these in the other, for it is the first step into understanding what words you should choose to help and support the other.

Embarrassment is the lightest, most fleeting and often eventually turns into laughter

Let’s start with the easiest one, which is embarrassment. This is a feeling we experience when we either do something, or something happens to us, that is “not supposed to”. Toilet paper is stuck on the bottom of your shoe when leaving the restroom, you drop something from your food tray in the canteen, you forget to remove console.log from your code.

You feel embarrassed. A moment goes by. You feel a little annoyed that this happened to you, but on the other hand you’re already past that and it wasn’t such a big deal anyway. Then it starts to amuse you. You know that this happens to people all the time and you are not alone with that feeling. If your friend feels embarrassed, a good way to show your support is to just say that “haha, know what, the same has happened to me/my friend X as well”.

When I was young, the one dropping the tray in the canteen received loud applause from the whole school. In theory, this should ease the feeling of embarrassment, as everyone is laughing at the silly, not at all serious happening. In practice, however, it probably depends a lot on the self-esteem of the person whether the applause helps or makes the situation even worse. It happens to be so, that it doesn’t help if instead of embarrassment the traydropper is experiencing shame.

Shame paralyzes and focuses on itself

Whereas embarrassing stuff happens to everyone and the feeling passes quickly, the events that cause shame make us feel as worthless human beings. Shame is born in the experience that we were unable to do or be as we were supposed to. We focus on our inner thoughts and start to blame ourselves: I am bad, I can do nothing, I always mess everything up, I always fail, I am worthless.

If one is ashamed of his/her actions, applause makes it even worse. In that moment the attention and the looks are directed at you and everyone sees how bad you are. Even if everyone else thinks that the situation was harmless, it is extremely difficult to put the occurrence into perspective if the shame has taken over.

Shame is also a very bad way to raise and lead people. If you make the other person feel shame, i.e., they are bad at their job or as human beings, it doesn’t lead into growth, empowerment or raising the standards. Instead, shame correlates with addictions, depression, suicide rates, aggressive behaviour and eating disorders among other things.

The cure for shame is empathy. One only needs to sit down in silence with the person that is struggling with shame, and let the other go through his/her experience without judging, blaming or trying to solve the problem. After that the next step should be seeking a path from shame to guilt.

Guilt is constructive and focuses on behaviour

Shame makes one feel worthless, whereas guilt makes one feel that he/she did something bad. Sounds like a small difference, but that difference is strong enough to move tectonic plates. In guilt a person identifies and admits the poor behaviour, and it feels miserable. At the same time it triggers the will to fix it and make up for that which has been done.

Guilt usually loosens its grip immediately once the bad action has been admitted and compensated for. It gets easier once forgiveness has been asked for, and it has been given.

I don’t have a scientific source backing this, so this is purely my gut feeling: If a colleague of yours is feeling guilty, you can help him/her to confess and fix the situation. You can ask that ”would you like me to come with you to the principal’s office”, because it’s easier to stammer the confession with a glowing red face, when one gets encouragement of the friend standing silently next to him. Or you can ask ”could I help you fix this”, if a mistake has been made and the server gives off smoke at the corner of the cleaner’s cupboard. It is, however, also necessary to understand that the person might want to ease his/her guilt by cleaning up the mess alone.

If your loved one is dealing with shame and keeps repeating over and over how she totally sucks, you can gently push her toward guilt: ”You are not bad, you just did this one thing wrong this time. Everyone of us screws up and makes mistakes and fails. What matters is what you do next.”

Humiliation is an undeserved feeling

Lastly, we go through humiliation which is closely related to shame. There is, though, one essential difference and that is the experience of earning. In shame we feel that we deserve to be yelled at, criticised, and all the other bad things that result from our action, because that’s how bad we are.

But when we are being humiliated, we don’t deserve it, and we are being treated in an unfair manner. Either we are being humiliated in public, we get unreasonable amount of yelling over a small thing or a thing we didn’t do in the first place. This doesn’t lead to shame or guilt, it leads to hatred towards the one that is humiliating us.

Even though the other did do something wrong, public humiliation is not the route to introspection and growth. Instead, having a conversation in private enables the other to find the feeling of guilt, and along with that, the will to fix things and improve oneself.

When you learn to recognize the difference between these feelings in you, you’re able to help yourself from shame to guilt and embarrassment to laughter. And when you learn to recognize these in the other, you’re capable of helping your colleague to move constructively ahead  in processing his feelings and bringing things up in a way that leads forward.

Can you name these four? Come and have a chat at Koodarikuiskaaja Slack!

TL;DR: What’s the difference between guilt, shame, embarrassment and humiliation?

  • In shame a person feels that she/he is bad. You focus on your inner thoughts and swirl about the events. Shame doesn’t help in changing behaviour or growing. You feel like you’re alone with the shame and as if you’re the only one that is so awfully worthless.
  • In guilt a person doesn’t experience being bad, but having acted poorly. Guilt activates the will to confess and fix, grow and improve.
  • Humiliation is born out of unjustified shaming. Humiliation causes hate.
  • Embarrassment is a light and fleeting feeling, which often eventually turns into laughter. Everyone does embarrassing things and we are not alone with that feeling.
  • It is essential to recognize the difference between these four and to reach from shame to guilt and from embarrassment to laughter.

6 kommenttia

  1. Great information. I’m still smarting from an embarrassing situation that occurred a few days ago. Your article has given me clarity. Thanks!

  2. Very explicit explanation. I’m relieved to find your article. Thanks to you, I can tell the difference to my students.

  3. Is humiliation always public? I.e. does it have to be public to count as humiliation?
    If someone withholdis affection, dismisses feelings, ignores etc. – can that not feel humiliating?

    1. Excellent question and the answer is no. The key factor, according to Brown, is the experienced unfairness of the situation. When we feel that the feedback or reaction is disproportionate considering what happened, when we feel we don’t deserve the treatment we’re getting, we feel humiliated. To my understanding it doesn’t have to be public. Although if it is public then it might be even more humiliating than in private, it might feel even more unfair.

      Although something might also be lost in translation here. In Finnish language we have two different words: humiliate is more often translated as “nöyryyttää” which is also to embarrass and feels a bit more of a public thing. On the other hand there’s also “halventaa”, which is to demean or to derogate. So that might explain why I stressed the publicness of the experience.

      However you’re right. We can be unfairly treated and feel humiliated in private situations too. Unfortunately.

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