Shame and Guilt: A Brief Comparison of Psychoanalytic Models

by: Kevin Murriel

Shame, by definition, is the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another. Additionally, shame can be considered a condition of disgrace or dishonor. This second notion of shame being a condition implies an element of normalcy in the lifestyle of the individual bearing the shame by which they not only have been shamed, but also are considered shameful– implying an embodiment of shame. Furthermore, in understanding the way in which shame is unique, I will attempt to define guilt. Guilt, by definition, is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
The implications of shame and guilt–though perceived as similar– are actually quite different. Shame, as I understand it, is the initial feeling that one experiences when they feel as if they have done something improper; while guilt is the result of the shameful feeling in which the individual begins to take internal “ownership” for that which was done improperly. According to Helen Block Lewis, “the experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, however, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus.”
Using these working definitions of shame and guilt, I will compare these two concepts using two psychoanalytic theories–Structural Theory (Sigmund Freud) and Object-Relations Theory (Melanie Klein). Structural Theory, introduced by Sigmund Freud, focuses on the 3-part aspect of personality: better known as the Id, Ego, and Superego. Freud noted that there are stages in ones life where each of these is present. The “Id” is considered to be the irrational and emotional part of the mind. This is primarily shown in the mind of an infant because all a baby desires is “want”. Dr. Gerald S. Blum, in his book Psychoanalytic Theories of Personality writes:
The exact relationship between the unconscious and the id has never been clearly formulated. Some writers use the two interchangeably, while others, including Freud, feel that the separation is a fruitful one. Perhaps the analysis can best be made by viewing the id as one segment of the unconscious. In other words, all of the id is unconscious, but not all of the unconscious is id.

This understanding of the unconscious is what I believe links directly to what Freud deemed as the “pleasure principle” because it implies the concept of instant gratification–“I want what I want when I want it”–by which the infant unconsciously links onto that which can nurture its wants.
Additionally, the “Ego” is the part of the mind that is rational. Burness E. Moore, when analyzing narcissism and the structural model, notes, “the ego takes into itself, or interjects, the objects presented to it that are a source of pleasure and expels what is unpleasurable.” Freud, in relating to the ego, infers the “reality principle” because it is in this stage that the individual begins to relate to the reality of the world in that we cannot always get what we want. The Ego, in essence, is the common ground between the Id and the Superego since there must be an awareness that one cannot always get what one wants but also does not need to prolong waiting to get what one desires to have. The function of the Ego, as Freud sees it, equates to being an adult.
The last developed stage of the human mind, Freud describes as the “Super-ego”. The Super-ego is the part of the mind that acts as the moral function. This part of the mind takes into consideration societal as well as moral values learned throughout life. Further, the rules of life in which one subscribes is readily enforced by the Super-ego. The Super-ego, subsequently, is divided into two subsystems– the Ego Ideal and Conscience– which sets the values of greatness in which the Ego must strive and indentifies that which implies bad or wrong behavior.
In additional effect to Freud’s Structural Model, Melanie Klein pioneered the Object-Relations Theory, which shifted from Freud’s notion of looking at the mind in stages, and placed the inference on the mind developing as one grows in relation to others in their environment. Klein noted within this theory that object relationships begin in the infancy stage of ones life where the relationship is built between the infant and caregiver–also shown in the model of the “good breast” and “bad breast”. The breast that gives proper nourishment to the infant is considered the “good” breast and the breast that fails to properly nourish the infant, the infant recognizes as the “bad” breast– although it is the same breast. This, as Klein suggests, infers the two primary drives by which an infant attains at birth: love and hate. Further, Michael St. Clair in his book, Object-relations and Self-psychology, gives this example:
The infant splits or mentally separates the mother into two part objects. Insofar as she satisfies the infant, she is good; insofar as she fails to satisfy the infant, she is a bad object. Because the infant is powerless to alter the situation in outer reality, the infant tries to change things in inner reality, the only realm where the infant has any resources.

With these brief yet working definitions of Structural and Object-relations theory, I will proceed in analyzing the distinguishing factors between shame and guilt as it relates to these two theories. Michael Lewis states that “shame is the product of a complex set of cognitive activities: the evaluation of an individual’s actions in regard to her standards, rules, and goals, and her global evaluation of the self.” Further, Lewis describes guilt as “the emotional state that is produced when individuals evaluate their behavior as failure to focus on the specific features of the self or on the self’s action that led to failure.” In assessing Freud’s structural model, the word “evaluate” used by Lewis in the above quotes imply that each are conscious reactions that take shape in the ego. The differences between shame and guilt in this regard is that shame is focused on the entirety of the self while guilt concentrates on various measures and manners that can aid in revamping the failure.
Equally important, the concepts of shame and guilt through the framework of Object-relations theory give an additional perspective to consider. First, in considering Klein’s notion of guilt in relation to the Object-relations theory, the Oedipus complex, which connotes unconscious ideas and feelings that center around the attachment of the child to the parent of the opposite sex, accompanied by envious and aggressive feelings toward the parent of the same sex, must also be considered. Leon Grinberg, in describing Klein’s concept of guilt, states, “guilt does not emerge when the Oedipus complex comes to an end, but is rather one of the factors which from the beginning mould its course and affect its outcome.” In this regard, Klein–who places the origin of Oedipus complex in the first months of life– correlates with Karl Abraham’s notion that the first guilt feelings come from the oral-sadistic phantasies of devouring the mother, and especially her breasts.
Moreover, Gerhart Piers notes, “The unconscious, irrational threat implied in shame anxiety is abandonment, and not mutilation as in guilt.” This notion by Piers, I believe, gives an excellent distinction between shame and guilt in Object-relations theory in that it implies shame as being unconsciously felt by the infant when it senses abandonment by the mother or the breast that the infant considers good. This view of shame, though unique, illustrates how early in life one can experience shame, which, in essence, shows activity in the id before the development of the infant’s ego.
In addition to Structural theory and Object-relations theory, I will briefly discuss other theories and models that are equally important for consideration in the psychoanalytic process. These theories/models include the Topographic model, Ego-psychology, and Affect theory. The first model, the Topographic model, was the described initially by Freud in 1900 in the Interpretations of Dreams. This model describes Freud’s general theory of the mind in which he describes as having three unique systems of conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious –the Id, Ego, and Superego– which eventually developed into Freud’s Structural theory. Additionally, Ego-psychology focuses on the autonomous nature of the ego and its independent functions. Some of these functions include judgment regarding danger, self-preservation, speech, motor control, and concentration. The final theory of discussion is the Affect theory. Affect theory, introduced by Silvan Tomkins, seeks to arrange affects into separate categories and unites each individually with its distinctive response. This is shown, for example, when the affect of anger or joy is shown through the frowning of the face when one is angry or a smile when one is joyous. Dr. Phyllis Tyson, in describing Affect theory, states: “Tomkins insisted that affect is primarily facial and skin behavior, and that biologically based inherited programs anchored in the central nervous system control facial muscle responses as well as autonomic visceral and motoric responses.”
In conclusion, psychoanalysis, from its inception, has grown into a phenomenon that has been readily pursued by individuals in an attempt to explain the functions and processes of the human mind. The theories/models that I have discussed in this précis, although few, have granted me a good foundational understanding of the significant role psychology plays in analyzing the concepts of shame and guilt. This, in essence, not only underscores the broadness of ideas that psychologists have assumed through the years, but also emphasizes the complexity that is God’s creation of the human being.


Blum, Gerald. 1953. Psychoanalytic Theories of Personality. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Grinberg, Leon. 1992. Guilt and Depression. London: Karnac Books.

Helen, Lewis. 1971. Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. New York: International Universities Press.

Lewis, Michael. 1992, 1995. Shame: The Exposed Self. New York: The Free Press.

Moore, Burness and Bernard Fine. 1995. Psychoanalysis: The Major Concepts. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Piers, Gerhart and Milton Singer. 1953. Shame and Guilt: A Psychoanalytic and a Cultural Study. Springfield: Thomas Books.

St. Clair, Michael. 2000. Object Relations Theories and Self-psychology: An Introduction third edition. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Tyson, Phyllis and Robert Tyson. 1990. Psychoanalytic Theories of Development: An Integration. New Haven: Yale University Press.