Monday, January 28, 2013

Guilt and shame

I've always thought of guilt and shame as two sides of the same coin.  In theory, when you do something wrong you feel guilty; when people find out about it, you feel ashamed.  Thus, one can feel guilty about something he's done even when no one else knows about it; he only feels ashamed, however, once his actions are discovered and his guilt is brought to light. 

In my mind, shame was a mixture of embarrassment and guilt brought about by having one's misdeeds made public.  I saw guilt, on the other hand, as a moral compass of sorts, one that alerts you when you've strayed too far off course.  Apparently, though, I've had it all wrong.  It turns out that people who study this type of thing think about guilt and shame quite differently.  To feel guilty is to condemn specific actions, i.e., you feel guilty about something you've done.  When, in contrast, a person feels shame he condemns himself.  In other words, I feel guilty about what I've done; I feel ashamed of who I am.

I have no problem with this perspective; it makes a certain amount of sense.  Who am I to argue with the experts?  Moving on...

Guilt is often uncomfortable and unpleasant but it also serves an important social function in that in promotes cooperation and adherence to group norms.  (Consider this: the inability to experience guilt and remorse is a characteristic of most psychopaths).  Studies show that guilt tends to motivate conciliatory behaviors and efforts at restitution.  Because it serves as an impetus for corrective action when social norms are violated, guilt facilitates the restoraction of peace and cooperation, thus enabling individuals to live and work together in communities.

Shame, on the other hand, yields very little in the way of benefits (at least according to the experts).  Whereas guilt often motivates reparative actions, shame tends to induce behaviors that are self destructive.  With guilt, the focus is on one's actions and their consequences to other people.  Shame, however, is a self-focused emotion characterized by a a sense of unworthiness and self-directed contempt.  Shame is associated with negative attributions towards oneself and is frequently accompanied by low self-esteem. 

Over time, shame leads to self loathing.  Pause for a moment: have you ever known someone who hated himself?  Think about what this person was like...

Probably very sensitive to any negative feedback.  People who carry a lot of shame tend to be very defensive.  You see, the job of the human "ego" (or sense of self, subconscious, identity, self concept, or whatever you want to call it) is to protect itself and to maintain its integrity.  Shame leads to self loathing; this poses a serious threat to the "ego."  The "ego" of someone who hates himself is under constant attack from the inside; an attack from the outside would be crippling.  So it builds up a network of defenses to protect it.  Thus the shame filled individual blames others for his mistakes and refuses to accept responsibility for his actions. We think he's just being an asshole.  The truth is, his fragile ego cannot withstand the blow of acknowledging he did something wrong; he can't even admit it to himself.  And obviously if a person can't admit he did something wrong, he certainly can't come to forgive himself...

Which is what I plan to talk about next week - self-forgiveness.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting this entry happy weekend.
      Greetings from Creativity and imagination photos of José Ramón


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