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What is the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?

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When you have a pornography or sex addiction, you may feel guilt and shame. One of these emotions is natural and may even be helpful in your recovery. The other isn’t helpful at all. Understanding the difference between guilt and shame can change the way you think about recovery.

Guilt is when you feel remorse or responsibility for behavior that goes against what you feel and know is right. It’s natural to have guilt about porn or sex addiction and the people hurt by it, including yourself. But shame happens when you turn that behavior inward and focus on yourself like something’s wrong with you. Addiction isn’t the result of something wrong with you. More likely, something happened to you to cause it.

Simply put, guilt is when you think you’ve done something bad. But shame is when you think you are bad.

Guilt Can Be Healthy

Some positives come from guilt. It entails doing something to right the wrongs the sex or porn addiction caused. It can help you understand how your actions impact others. And it can ultimately lead to repairing and rebuilding relationships.

Matthew Wenger, the Clinical Director for Boulder Recovery and the Begin Again Institute, said guilt is open to others’ feelings and is accountable. For example, guilt can move you to comfort those you wounded.

And guilt often a short-term feeling about something you can fully and healthily address. 

Address guilt by:

  • Recognizing Wrongdoing. Acknowledge the behaviors associated with the porn or sex addiction thoroughly and honestly.
  • Work to Right Wrongs. Admit guilt to those you wronged through your addiction, including yourself.
  • Make Amends. Apologize and make amends for the wrong you did. 
  • Repair and Strengthen Relationships. Once you fully make amends, you can work on rebuilding the relationships with those you hurt.
  • Forgive Yourself. One of those broken relationships includes the one you have with yourself. Clinging to guilt can lead to shame.
  • Learn Lessons. Learn from your wrongdoing, so you don’t repeat the same mistakes and can fully recover from the addiction.

“Sometimes guilt is appropriate,” Wenger noted. “We do wrong things sometimes. But if we are in a constant state of guilt over daily life choices or interactions, there is probably a deeper issue going on.”

The Nature of Shame

Unlike guilt, shame has no upside. It’s self-focused and takes away from others’ feelings. 

“Shame, or more accurately, embarrassment, can be natural in certain cases, but we cannot allow it to linger as it robs from others around us,” Wenger said. “Shame deflects both others’ and our own emotions. If I am focused on hating myself, I don’t have to feel sadness, grief, anger, or other emotions I am not comfortable with.”

The impact of shame includes:

  • Feeling Unworthy. Feeling unworthy or worthless is unhealthy, mentally and emotionally. It’s also sinful. People have intrinsic value as human beings made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26).
  • Sticking Around. Shame takes more time and effort to overcome. And the longer you deal with shame, the longer it’s likely to continue being part of your life. You can’t recover from an addiction if you don’t forgive yourself too.
  • Failure to Respond. Shame can keep you from doing the right thing. It can start a destructive vicious cycle in which you feel shame for having sinned and then you relapse.

A byproduct of shame is often more mental health issues and engaging in destructive behaviors. You may try to find comfort from shameful feelings through pornography or sex, repeating the cycle. 


“We do wrong things sometimes. But if we are in a constant state of guilt over daily life choices or interactions, there probably is a deeper issue going on,” Wenger said. “This deeper issue could be related to your upbringing or early experiences with blame and shame.”

Another Type of Shame

A deeper issue could be related to a person’s childhood or early experiences with blame and shame, Wenger noted.

Trauma is often the root of lingering shame. This can occur when things that happened to us as a young person or child are blamed on us, or we are made to feel that it was our fault. This is called misplaced shame. Misplaced shame can follow us into adulthood and cause us to interpret our relationships and environments through that lens. This results in an hyperactive shame response and a difficulty sitting with our legitimate mistakes or unpleasant emotions.”

What To Do About Shame

Fortunately, you can address shame directly, as you can guilt. But it’s often a much more complicated process. Wenger noted that you can only undo shame by facing its root causes.

“When I allow myself to feel it and not run from it, I am removing some of its power over me. I can feel the sadness, fear, anger, and other emotions hiding underneath shame. I can show compassion on that younger version of myself that did that thing or had that thing done to them.”

Positive ways to address shame include:

  • Show Yourself Compassion. You’re only human, and part of being human is knowing you’ll make mistakes in life. Admit your mistakes, apologize to those you hurt, and work on your recovery.
  • Stop Criticizing Yourself. While being critical of your sins is healthy, being overly self-critical is nothing more than letting shame manifest itself in your life. You can’t recover from addiction if you costantly beat yourself up for your past actions.
  • Pursue Positive Relationships. Find emotional comfort with your spouse and spiritual comfort through the Church and fellow Christians.

Letting go of shame is liberating. You can know deep down that not only are you forgiven by yourself, others, and God, but you can move forward with your life.

Getting the Help You Need

You may need help identifying the root cause of your addiction and working toward healing it and recovering from your addiction. You also may need help properly dealing with guilt and shame. There’s nothing wrong with getting help for these difficulties. 

At Boulder Recovery, we integrate Christian values and Biblical wisdom to help men deal with the root of their shame and overcome porn or sex addiction. Our 14-Day Men’s Intensive includes participating in individual and group trauma therapy and learning coping skills.

Don’t be afraid to seek help for dealing with guilt and shame. Reach out to Boulder Recovery to begin your own road to healing and restoration.

  • Category: Christian TherapyMental Health
  • By Lawrence Buddoo
  • October 30, 2022

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