The difference between shame and guilt

Environmentalists are often accused of peddling guilt – over flying on holiday, or eating meat, or not sorting your recycling properly. In my experience, it’s actually rather rare for an environmental organisation or activist to suggest anyone should feel guilty. It’s usually the popular press that take that line with things, the sort of comment Jeremy Clarkson would make.

A couple of weeks ago I read a blog post that made me think about it. It’s by Simon Phipps, passing on a distinction between guilt and shame that is explained by Brene Brown in her book I Thought it was Just Me. And it’s useful.

Guilt is when we recognise that we haven’t lived up to our own standards. We know that we’ve done something wrong, and we feel bad about it. In this context, guilt is a healthy response. It will motivate us to do the right thing next time.

Shame is different. It takes things one step further. It says that we did a bad thing, and we are therefore a bad person. That’s a very poor motivator, because it makes the wrongdoing a matter of identity. How could we change and do better, if we’re fundamentally beyond redemption?

That’s an important distinction, and one that should alert us to avoid shaming anybody. That’s the difference between ‘eggs from caged hens are wrong’ and ‘buying eggs from caged hens makes you a bad person’. One calls us to do better. The other defines us and closes down possibilities for change.

I don’t know about you, but I often find people apologising for their actions around me. I’ve never told anyone not to fly. But we don’t as a family, and friends notice. Then, when they say where they’re going on holiday, they’ll throw in some shame for my benefit: “I know, I’m a bad person”. Thinking about the difference between guilt and shame, I shouldn’t let this go. We’re all making compromises, and we can all make better choices. The one thing we shouldn’t be doing is putting ourselves in boxes, labeling ourselves as people who care about the environment, or who don’t.

Thinking about it more broadly, I wonder if shame plays a wider role in climate denial. How much of the social silence and the general inaction is down to an unacknowledged shame about how we treat the planet and each other? Perhaps I should read Brene Brown’s book on the subject.

As for my own writing, I don’t think guilt and shame come into it very often, though you’re welcome to call me on it if you see it otherwise. I tend to think of sustainable living more as an invitation. Here’s a better way of life that we are invited to participate in, an improvement on the status quo that will benefit us, nature, and future generations. Why wouldn’t you want to be involved in creating the future?


  1. Invitations can frequently be declined by personal choice for the individual. However, we usually do not like to see anyone unnecessarily harming something else in order to gain selfishly and we show disapproval in the hope they will stop.

    I think a real grasp of the trade-off for declining to create a sustainable world does require pressure globally on a scale far greater and quicker than any personal choices can influence. For me, the questions are; how to quickly educate the masses of the trade-off, how to transform/limit corporate greed, how to go global.

    Of course, it’s not that straight-forward, but waiting for individuals to make their own choice cannot work for the planet. How to do otherwise, I do not know – Catch 22!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: