Understanding The Difference Between Guilt And Shame

The Office is a wildly popular American TV show that was originally created in Britain. The American version differs from the original—but I have only seen a handful of the British episodes—so I will not comment on that and that is also beyond the scope of this writeup.

For itself, the show opens itself up to much interpretation. The Ribbon Farm has an absolute must-read series of posts analyzing power relations in the modern workplace through the lens of the The Office. However, for my purposes here, I wish to talk about Michael Scott, as he is a perfect example of a narcissist—a person who feels no guilt, only shame.


Michael Scott, for the first eight seasons, is the regional manager of a mid-size paper distributing company. He clearly had a traumatic childhood. While such narcissism is always born out of a childhood not lived, consider a few points that reinforce my perception. First, is his appearance on a TV show for kids. His younger self said his dream was to have 100 kids so nobody can say no to being his friend.

He seems to think that childhood is necessarily limited by the parent’s wishes, which is not healthy. Further, he is admitting he isn’t not getting the positive emotional support at home. Second, consider the taped footage of his mother’s marriage to Jeff. In the clip, when bringing something down the aisle, he screams, “I HATE YOU” and storms off. He is wetting his pants the entire time. Clearly, this situation reminded him of a very traumatic experience that can only be speculated on.

Back on point, Michael Scott displays a great level of delusion about who he is and appropriate behaviors to display in society. He never displays genuine sympathy or empathy, as it is always tied to advancing his personal delusions or to show off to others. He has no self-esteem and has his delusions punctured very easily and slips in narcissistic depression with frightening regularity. He also possesses the ability to turn women into compensatory narcissists and transform himself in a pseudo-codependent. The fact the whole show is supposedly a documentary reinforces the narcissism of the workplace and Michael Scott.

As far as Michael Scott is concerned, he only experiences shame and never guilt. Guilt, properly felt, is a feeling about things you have actually done (to others). Shame, however, is a feeling about who you are, your identity.

forgetting important things

For example, let’s say a man forgets to pick a friend up from work and it forces them to miss a date with an attractive woman. The guilt-based person would apologize to the person and feel bad because he hurt a friend. A shame-based person would think “I am such a bad person!” and need public reassurance they aren’t a bad person from the person they harmed.

The guilt-based person would try to own up to their misdeeds and try to rectify the situation with good acts—i.e. buy his friend a case of beer he likes or personally call the woman and convince her that is was his fault—not his friend’s—that she was stood up. The shame-based person will seek avenues to avoid personal culpability, such as downplaying the bad act (she was probably a bitch), blaming them (you know how unreliable I am!) or ignoring the situation (dodging his calls or texts).

Guilt-based people are healthy. People should want to atone for their bad acts with commensurate good acts. Shame-based people are immature psychologically. While every personality disorder has shame-based impulses, narcissism is the one that expressly discloses any ability to feel guilt, only shame.

Shame-based approaches are born out of child-like approaches to criticism or lack of boundaries. Kids subject to intense, withering criticism as a child develop a complex that they are either 100% good or 100% bad. Recall that every child is a born a narcissist, which is why we tend to put the gloves when critiquing a child because we implicitly recognize they take criticism 100% personally as an attack on their identity as a whole.

Further, kids who are never disciplined develop the same complexes. Kids who are unschooled, receive “participation ribbons” or who are born to parents who let them do whatever they want never mature beyond the emotional level of a child. Children need boundaries set by those who love them unconditionally and are intimately based out of that child’s best interest and personality.

The Office

Reconsidering Michael Scott, he displays shame-based approaches to life. Recall the season 3 episode in which Michael and Dwight travel to the paper convention with Jim and his new boss. At the end, when Michael’s party fails and he broods in a narcissist depression, Jim visits and calms him down. Michael was jealous of Jim’s rapport with his new boss. Notice at the end when he calms down, he refers to Jim as “Best Friends Forever.” See the black and white approaches to relationships? Jim realizes he is dealing with an emotional child, so he treats him as such.

In fact, the rest of the office—outside Dwight—recognizes this. While his antics are outrageous and often offensive, you can’t really treat him badly because you realize he is—in this heart—an emotional child. When Michael hosts the Dundies in season 2, he is heckled by a group of people. He feels a great amount of shame as they puncture his personal concept of being a comedic genius. He doesn’t really need anybody to validate that, as long as he can perform, he will invent approval in his head.

Let’s consider a few more scenes that flesh out the contours of shame-based behavior. Michael once makes an incredibly dismissive and flippant remark about Dwight crying on New Year’s Eve when it started to snow at midnight while watching one of Dwight’s favorite shows. In private, Michael exhibits a complete lack of feelings about somebody.

I can’t recall the exact scene, but I believe Jim says that is pretty insensitive to mock Dwight for that. Michael backtracks and calls Dwight’s movie “stupid.” See the shame-based approach here? Michael—with no audience—flippantly dismisses a friend’s emotions and when confronted publically about it, he downplays his rejection of Dwight.

Now, making fun of Dwight is one thing, but a guilt-based person would feel a bit bad that a friend had such a emotional reaction to something. Sure, if Dwight was my friend I would razz him about it, but if he’s your friend you care about his emotional state. Rudely ignoring him is not what a good person does.

[Image: the-office-gaydar_l.jpg]

Quite possibly the best episode to talk about is season 3’s opener, Gay Witch Hunt. In this episode, Michael jokingly refers to Oscar as “faggy.” Toby confronts Michael and tells him Oscar was offended because he is gay. Michael is asked to keep this a secret as Oscar does not want his coworkers to know. A guilt-based person knows that they would feel bad if they disrespected Oscar’s wishes, would apologize to them in private and move on. If Michael had done that, Oscar would have respected Michael. That is not what happens.

Michael does apologize to Oscar, but does it in a self-aggrandizing way and only in semi-private. Oscar accepts Michael’s insincere apology only because he is worried about being outed. Michael doesn’t stop because he knows homosexuality can bring attention into somebody’s life. He has Dwight research gay porn on his computer and it results in a very psychologically unhealthy and embarrassing—for Oscar—office meeting.

As is seen, most people don’t care about allegations of homosexuality. I wouldn’t be surprised if some real-life homosexuals were upset at this (if they notice) because it means most people— today—just don’t care who you have sex with. Pam is interested in hearing about Oscar’s sexuality, but at the moment his biggest issue is Michael. Michael formally outs Oscar, narcissistically thinking Oscar will love the attention, whether positive or negative. See the self-absorption here? If Michael was gay, he would prefer worship for being gay, but would accept hatred if it means avoiding indifference.

Oscar comes out and in the intervening events, shuts Michael down badly, calling him “ignorant, offensive and small.” Michael immediately engages in the shame-based defense mechanism of narcissistic depression. Oscar realizes that Michael had no malicious intentions, just self-absorbed ones. He engages in guilt-based acts right afterward. Oscar softens his tone, proffers a genuine apology and offers Michael a hug. Michael then tries to self-aggrandize with kissing Oscar but he realizes that doesn’t work for him, for obvious reasons.

The takeaway lesson is about the differences between guilt and shame based individuals. Guilt-based people don’t consider failures to speak to their entire identity, while shame-based people do. Shame-based people are emotionally immature and that results from poor parenting of many stripes. Guilt-based people are worried about the effect of their actions on others, shame-based people are worried about their identity, especially as seen by others.

Read More: The Power Of Shame

54 thoughts on “Understanding The Difference Between Guilt And Shame”

  1. I’d never really considered the distinction between guilt and shame. This makes a large amount of sense though. Thanks for the article.

    1. Guilt is what you get from gassing a couple thousands jews or so. Shame is what you get when you notice a hot womans cleverage in front of feminists.. One doesnt matter, the other is repairable only by God.

  2. Guilt and shame aren’t entirely bad things.
    Not that long ago, shame was an effective tool to teach and enforce proper social behavior. People knew that certain actions would rightfully bring upon them shame, and most would avoid engaging in those behaviors.

    1. I don’t think that’s the implication here. The point is that if you engage in shame-based thinking or feeling, you have the emotional maturity of a child. You lack empathy.
      Guilt-based means you have empathy. Empathy is a key component of maintaining a civilization.
      And empathy is primarily built when you are 5 years old or younger, usually with a father or father-figure in your life and the ability to play with other children unsupervised.
      And once you understand all that, you begin to see why feminism has effectively destroyed a couple of generations and why our civilization is on the decline.

      1. But what does empathy do for you in the modern world anyways?
        On RoK we’re talking about empathy like its the “right” thing… but having no empathy is what gets you ahead in this world.
        If you can prove me wrong I’d appreciate it.

    2. Shame does work to a certain degree especially in children; however, it needs to be done so that it will instill empathy otherwise you could end up with a sociopath. That is, as the article states, shame is inward and outward is outward.

    1. They can feel shame. They rail against “fat-shaming” and “slut-shaming”, and follow all the latest trends of the female herd, because they can feel shame and really don’t like how it feels. Guilt, though, would require a conscience, which the average American female doesn’t have.

    2. I agree with the other responses here. I think women do feel shame, sometimes deserved and sometimes not. I hadn’t seen the distinction between shame and guilt as clearly as I do from reading this article. My take now is that shame is one’s concern about how other people see them.
      There are several aspects to this. First of all, a person can have an unrealistically poor self image, and therefore always feel an underlying sense of shame, and feel a need to compensate or to somehow fool people so they don’t see how pathetic they are (think they are). Secondly, a person may be actually defective, like a fat girl, and so they try to deflect this on other people.
      In this case, they are trying to get other people to feel ashamed for not liking fat girls, but in fact, their true motivation is shame for being fat.
      So, I would draw a distinction between shame and shaming. People feel shame because of how others see them. When people try to shame others, they are trying to get the others to feel shame.
      If a person is confident that their own behavior and character are justified, then they can have a strong frame and a strong self image, and they should not feel shame, even when others try to shame them.

  3. I’d also like to add that there is way too much imaginary “guilt” in the western world. Too much shame based reality may turn you into a narcissist. But too much guilt is absolutely a reason for the white-liberal-socialist-mangina epidemic.

  4. this doesn’t describe real people, does it? Michael is a character far twisted beyond that which is into a comedic expression of those character extremes. Anyone truly faced with such a debilitating social handicap could not possibly have a job managing an office… I would hope?

      1. Today you wrote. “However, for my purposes here, I wish to talk about Michael Scott, as he is a perfect example of a narcissist—a person who feels no guilt, only shame.”
        On October 2, 2009, TLP said “Narcissists don’t feel guilt, only shame.”
        This is not a run of the mill, mundane point about narcissism. It is absolutely unique to TLP’s work and he has advanced this thesis many times on his blog. To not credit him in this post is intellectually dishonest.
        There are many examples throughout your posts here on ROK where you’ve ripped off TLP. Here’s one more pretty terrible example.
        On April 13, 2014 you said:
        “A wider view is that the show is an allegory for how late-narcissistic societies operate. The young Morty is somebody who—in class—might wonder aloud why blacks didn’t just rise up and challenge slavery and racism. The nervous fidgeting of his female classmates might tell part of the story, maybe a black classmate might have stray thoughts about Morty’s “racism,” but what Morty would be showing is how he hasn’t learned about the system, about America.”

        “Rick & Morty” Shows The Utter Hopelessness Of Modern America

        On January 14, 2013, TLP said, in refernce to (Django Unchained):
        “Anyway, perfectly ordinary slaveowner DiCaprio asks a rhetorical question, a fundamental question, that has occurred to every 7th grade white boy and about 10% of 7th grade white girls, and the profound question he asked was: “Why don’t they just rise up?” Kneel down, Quentin Tarantino is a genius. That question should properly come from the mouth of the German dentist: this isn’t his country, he doesn’t really have an instinctive feel for the system, so it’s completely legitimate for a guy who doesn’t know the score to ask this question, which is why 7th grade boys ask it; they themselves haven’t yet felt the crushing weight of the system”
        I will leave it to the readers to judge.

        1. I will respond to these alegations when I return home, but your point about this article is intellectually dishonest. The distinction between guilt and shame is in the Wikipedia entry on narcissism. I did a book review on personality disorders on ROK and said book obviously addressede the issues around identity and narcissism. TLP is not the only source for resources or thinking on pyschology.

        2. If you got your ideas from Wikipedia or another psychologist, then cite that. But let’s get real, you got them from TLP. Because TLP is a major influence on your writing here. You care about this thesis because TLP cares about this thesis.
          I concede that you would have plausible deniability with respect to today’s post, were it not for the context. The comparison between your Rick & Morty piece and TLP’s Django piece is quite stark. Here’s another example I recalled:
          You, January 26, 2014: “On one hand, women reflexively want to resist authority figures dictating terms to them. On the other, they do want standards for beauty, but they want the standards to be altered so that they — in their current state — would be considered beautiful.”

          Images Of Attractive Women In Media Do Not Hurt Women

          TLP, May 18, 2013: “they represent a psychological type that transcends age/race/class, it is characterized by a kind of psychological laziness: on the one hand, they don’t want to have to conform to society’s impossible standards, but on the other hand they don’t want the existential terror of NOT conforming to some kind of standard. They want an objective bar to be changed to fit them– they want “some other omnipotent entity” to change it so that it remains both entirely valid yet still true for them, so that others have to accept it”
          So let’s not quibble about whether you *could* have gotten your inspiration today from another source, when the truth is apparent from your record.
          I’m not stalking your work. I very much like TLP, so it is very memorable to me when I see his unconventional ideas elsewhere. I’m happy to see others expand on his line, but not if they want to pass it off as wholly original thought. In your Sheryl Sandberg piece, you did cite TLP. Why did you stop doing this?

        3. 2Wycked
          While I haven’t read the TLP articles, I would like to offer my opinion on the apparent plagiarism.
          The first quotes have some similarities. Such as, the mention of slavery and race. An interesting similarity is the phrase, “Why don’t they rise up?” None of these things in and of themselves imply plagiarism. That phrase could have been uttered by any “enlightened” observer of any enslaved peoples in history. Those quotes only imply that both you and TLP have arrived at the same conclusion and while I don’t know for certain, I am sure that may others, writing retrospectively about the slavery arrived at the same conclusion.
          For the last two quotes. Both you and TLP cover an aspect of the SJW/entitlement/victim mindset. And while the quotes are very similar, the content is common knowledge, and common knowledge cannot be plagiarized by definition. In addition TPL mentions “society” and you mention “authority figures” as the dictating forces of feminine standards. Felix seems to have a conundrum of terms.
          I believe that your accuser does not even warrant a response because no plagiarism has occurred. In fact, for the claim to hold any weight the accuser must provide concrete examples, (not examples that indicate the two of you are thinking along the same lines,) must show blatant attempt at plagiarism, and provide convincing evidence that the source was in fact plagiarized. The accuser does not provide any of those qualifications, merely quite poor circumstantial evidence.

        4. A point of confusion on my part, that last line “narcissists are their own biggest critics.”
          I thought narcissists only cared anout their failings when pointed out by others?
          Or is this a dynamic of their projected false self, and their self critical nature is part of them having no real self esteem?

        5. This last point is a common feminist idea. That standards of beauty be changed to suit the fat, short haired feminist. I don’t think that 2Wycked would need to have read TLP to have reached the same conclusion.
          However, even if he had, his agreement with the idea does not imply plagiarism necessarily.

  5. Simply put:

    Shame has to do with what -others- think of you.
    Guilt has to do with what -you- think of yourself.

    Girls (western) do not experience guilt, only shame.
    To feel guilt would require introspection, an activity unknown to the modern female.
    This explains their sheep-like behavior, and also their lack of a sense of justice.
    The inflated western female ego has to do with this concept, and the ocean of available social networking software which allows others to provide “opinions” in the form of “likes”, which are then interpreted by the girls as social validation, and encourages her to continue or ramp up her attention-whoring behaviors.
    This is why there will never be a “dislike” button on ANY social networking site.
    By limiting the crowd’s opinion to “like” or “ignore”, the user posting the content will receive at worst 0 likes, and at best, vast amounts of social validation.
    It’s a no-risk, high-reward investment every time.

    1. I think the difference between guilt and shame is a bit more elemental–and both, in my view, have to do with how one sees the self.
      Guilt: “I have done something bad.”
      Shame: “I am bad.”
      Guilt is about what you have done—but shame is about who you believe you are. Guilt is healthy because one can atone for and correct bad acts and do better moving forward. But shame is usually unhealthy because it is very, very difficult for people to overcome deeply ingrained ideas about their own personal worth.
      Otherwise, a great comment.

  6. Guilt is and can be a genuine, constructive emotional state. Shame is a lie you’re supposed to believe about yourself usually imposed upon you from the outside.

  7. This article describes my boss to a tee.
    He couldn’t give a shit about what happens to his students… or his son for that matter… but he is obsessed with what people think about him.

  8. Not sure if you guys are busting these articles out, but the grammatical errors in this and other recent articles are quite tedious.

    1. I dont give one flying fuck about English, grammar, and/or ESL. Nor do I give one flying fuck about what posters on an internet forum think about my English or grammar skills.
      -Lee “Dash Global” Melvin, connoisseur of rooftop bars

  9. Good article.
    Made me think, what happens to most people when guilt and shame are eliminated from social conditioning altogether, in both genders?
    Egocentrism, hedonism, materialism, narcissism, instant gratification, and so on.
    Most women in such an environment will tend to become empowered, hypergamous feminists; most men will tend to become PUA’s / Dark Triads. Both are winning on the surface; yet both are losing touch with reality and humanity.

  10. Your article is very interesting and eyeopening to me because I think it
    really describes me. It seems like all of my life I have struggled to
    know what is wrong with me and you hit it right on the head. All the
    time I am worried about what people think of me. My question is, for
    someone with a damaged psyche, how could I be able to fix this? What can
    I do or how can I change my view so that I can perceive things more
    rationally? I feel so broken sometimes and I can’t help but feel shame
    in certain situations much like what you described. I am incredibly
    self-absorbed. I get that I should focus more on other people than what
    they think of me, but I have very low self-esteem.
    As a child I
    got everything I wanted and I was very spoiled to the point I would kick
    my grandfather when he didn’t buy me a toy in the store and he would
    even get bruises. I was very mean to all the other kids when I went to
    kindergarten and I would always get in trouble. Up until second grade I
    would get into fights in the playground all the time just to fight. When
    I got to elementary school I felt so bad because nobody wanted to be my
    friend and I turned into a complete pussy. I was nice to everybody
    because nobody wanted to be my friend, but people started picking on me.
    I grew up really having no friends and my childhood was wasted on video
    games. I feel like my whole life has been a waste.
    Often times I
    struggle to maintain friendships and that really makes me feel bad
    about myself. It is true that narcissists are often not as sincere in
    their relationships. I try to be a good friend and I like to think that I
    actually care about my friends deeply, but at the same time, I am too
    selfabsorbed sometimes and I could go on for weeks not talking to them. I
    really don’t care about them but I do. I notice that when I have a new
    friend, they often become my “bestfriend” or my “brother” but they
    really aren’t. Just like you mentioned in the article about Michael and
    Jim. I guess I tell people they are my best friends and they look at me
    funny too and I never knew it was because they look at me like that. I
    am an emotional child with black and white relationships like you said.
    What is wrong with me and how do I fix this aspect of my personality?

    1. It was the other way round with me: self-absorbed parents who, when they were not engaged in their own active or passive warfare, did their very best to criticise and crush the personal development of their son. It became a three-way war and, like all wars, it did lasting damage.
      To some extent my emotional nerve ends were cauterized, rendering me more numb to other people than I should have been. Another effect was to divert that emotional sensitivity inward, so that problems and setbacks in the outer world became shamed reflections upon myself in the inner world.
      I grew more aware of this over the years and dealing with it became part of my path to maturity. It’s a path I’m still on. Your post reveals that you possess the necessary self-awareness and wisdom to deal with it, so you’ve already made a good start and you’re in the right place by being here and reading some of the articles. I particularly recommend Quintus Curtius’ writing.
      How do you fix it? My advice is to begin by making the conscious effort to know and remember other people. Fix their faces in your mind when you meet them. Remember their names. Learn their characters and know their lives. When you feel ready, try doing some charity work. I was a Samaritans listener for several years, taking calls from the suicidal. I didn’t do it for myself but to help others but, my goodness, stuff like that can be a damned good green beret course in emotional development so long as you are ready for it at the beginning.

  11. …” recall that every child is born a narcissist “. According to the theology of John Calvin and the writings of the Bible, this is referred to as original depravity

  12. Everyone, certainly fictional charcters, has both shame and guilt. But as 2wycked is pointing out, without guilt one cannot have true empathy.
    And I would amateurishly wager that the more your own guilt outweighs your sense of shame, the more empathy you have.
    Like if you’re willing to look bad for your friend to set things right for example.

  13. Another foreign comedy show that Americans enjoy is the series “The Games”, written by John Clarke, about the 2000 olympics. It’s a satirical look at government and such things.
    Worth checking out. If you like “The Office”, you might like that, too.

    1. On a note about government and political satire, I recommend Yes Minister. British comedy about a minister and civil servants.

  14. I know a girl who behaves like this. While she’s never really awkward like Mike is, she’s got issues.
    We didn’t really realise quite how skewed her perspective was until she borderline cheated on her boyfriend to start dating someone that man knew. While admittedly the motivation for doing so was in the end understandable (her and the new guy really do get on brilliantly and they’re now married), the fact was she was the primary one in the wrong, and people reacted accordingly.
    Her response to this shift in attitude was weird, she didn’t *technically* cheat, she just came so close to doing so that she’d basically played wrecking ball on the ex’s emotions. She then proceeded to blame everything on her ex, accepted no responsibility for her actions, refused to accept any criticism whatsoever and promptly slipped into depression because she had come to see herself as “a bad person” and noone was forgiving her.
    It wasn’t that anyone was refusing to forgive her, after a few months even her ex was moving on and could see himself being ok with it all at some point. It was that we weren’t going to accept the narrative she made up which painted her as the victim because it was total bollocks.
    It was like she felt no real guilt, only shame.

    1. Women generally lash out if they feel shame and don’t want to feel guilt. They also, regardless of the situation, never want to step up to the plate and apologize and be the bigger person.

      1. Ah this girl took it to a whole new level.
        I’m lucky with my lady, she’s a sane one. If she realises she’s done something wrong she’ll own up to it and apologise. However, it’s usually me in the wrong as I’m a little bit of a selfish git at times ^_^
        Funnily enough she rarely ever feels shame though.

  15. I’ve noticed that a lot of modern jackasses are exactly like this guy. Modern millenials who don’t care about others. It’s the selfie generation, where you’re taught that self-esteem is the most important thing.

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