Shame vs Guilt
In our shame-centric culture, the words Shame and Guilt have become almost synonymous. For example:
You should be ashamed of what you’ve done!
You should feel guilty about what you’ve done!
He looks guilty to me…
I’m ashamed of you!
You’re trying to take me on a guilt trip, aren’t you?
But historically and etymologically, these two words are very different. Here’s a run-down:
|Focuses on undesirable behaviour (deception, theft, injury etc.)||Focuses on loss (of honour, reputation, popularity, self-worth etc.)|
|Promotes the desire to rectify the wrong done and refrain from re-offending||Promotes avoidance of the conditions that led to the shameful experience (e.g., being caught)|
|Encourages exploration of how others’ feelings were affected by our actions||Focuses on inner feelings, makes empathy difficult or even impossible|
|Focuses on the consequences of our actions on ourself AND others, including the environment||Focuses on the meaning of the shame for our self-worth (e.g., I must be a terrible person if people think this about me)|
|Encourages internalisation of the reasons why we should avoid that behaviour in the future (e.g., harmful to self and others, inconsistent with our values etc.)||Distracts us from such exploration by narrowing down our thoughts on how the event affected us emotionally|
Guilt is really, really important. It’s that warning system most of us have built-in, that goes off when we do something that isn’t quite “right”, that seems unethical or hurtful or abusive. It’s the shoulder angel, the little voice that says “you know you probably shouldn’t do that…”.
We can ignore it, but it’s there and we know it. I think we start feeling it even before we’ve done something bad, we feel it as soon as we’ve decided to do it, and that’s mainly how societies around the world manage to retain some sort of order. If we stopped feeling it, I doubt we’d manage to keep any relationship or community alive for very long.
The best way to respond to guilt is to recognise we’ve made a wilful mistake, allow the feeling of guilt to happen, and let it prompt us to action. We’ll want to rectify things as much as possible, make amends, apologise, mend damaged relationships etc. Then we’ll make a resolve not to repeat that action again. That cycle of error, recognition, restitution and commitment to change is how we build character and wisdom over time. It needs to happen.
Shame, on the other hand, isn’t a built-in mechanism. It’s a cultural, social influence that attempts to demean and belittle everyone. It doesn’t lead to positive change, to restitution, or even to a full acknowledgement of the consequences of our choices. It’s narrow-minded, self-centred and short-sighted.
Shame is based on a faulty assumption: that our worth is dependent on what others think it is, like a market commodity.
As I wrote previously,
[…] we only have access to our own thoughts and ways of thinking; we must guess everyone else’s, and we do it based on our own thoughts. If we tend to judge everyone harshly, we tend to assume that everyone does the same.
And this is the core of shame: a negative appraisal of our own worth based on an estimate of everyone else’s thoughts. We place ourselves in front of an imaginary audience, and assume that the audience is impartial, objective, and miraculously accurate in its reaction to our performance. We look for cues to validate this negative appraisal, and invariably find some that appear to validate it.
By doing this we enter into a downward spiral of decreasing self-worth and increasing loneliness. As we feel that others judge us harshly, we tend to avoid their company. Our circle of influence and relationships narrows down, and gradually we feel increasingly rejected and neglected, and we interpret that as a proof that we are unlovable and unworthy.
Feeling unworthy leads us to neglect our own needs and well-being, which leads us back to the kinds of behaviours we were initially ashamed of: addictions, bad habits etc. And the cycle begins again.
Shame and pride
The companion of shame is pride. This may seem like a strange statement, because we typically think of these two concepts as opposites:
I’m ashamed of you
I’m proud of you
I say they are companions because one cannot exist without the other, but neither is necessary for close, meaningful and fulfilling relationships. To say that you are proud of your child implies that, under other circumstances, you would be ashamed of her, which means she should be ashamed of herself. You are focused, typically, on how your child’s actions reflect on your image as seen by people you associate with.
The actual, real-world consequences of the shamed or prided behaviour are brushed aside, and in many cases are never even fully considered. What matters within these constructs is how we appear to other people. And that, as I have demonstrated before, is a very flimsy concept, because we can NEVER know how we actually appear to other people, and it really, really doesn’t matter any way!
If you, like me, believe that our worth is equal to everyone else’s, and isn’t dependent on anyone else’s opinions, then we must shed the shame and the family or group-related pride, remove them from our lives. Contrary to what our culture (and many other cultures) would have us believe, these concepts are not required, we do NOT need them. They are responsible for some of the worst physical and emotional trauma around the world, alienate us from each other, and blind us to the glorious potential of our associations with one another.
Instead, let’s just focus on these priceless relationships with our family members and our communities, living authentic, shame-free and meaningful lives, refraining from judging others’ worth or our own.