Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Miserys of Guilt and Shame

Do you struggle with guilt and/or shame? I certainly have had periods where I was overwhelmed with both. Doesn't happen as much any more, or for as long when it does, for which I am grateful for.

This post from Yoga in the Dragon's Den is equally relevant to both yoga and Buddhist practitioners. Here is an excerpt:

Having grown up in a culture in which shaming or "guilting" people into doing things is such a big part of everyday life, I am aware that it can be an effective tool to get people (and even myself) to do things. But I just think that the emotional/psychological baggage created by guilt can't be good for one in the long run. So a few years ago, starting from around the time when I began to do yoga, I resolved that, even though I am far from being a perfect human being (are there perfect human beings out there? Please get in touch with me: I want to get to know you :-)), I am going to try my best to live life on my own terms, for better or for worse, and to try not to look back and feel guilty about stuff I could have or should have done.

Now, I think there is value in separating guilt from shame to take a closer look.

In my experience, guilt is always self-focused, overly attached to a solid self that "screwed up." Feeling guilty about yelling at your kids, or stealing money from the petty cash jar at work doesn't do anything to rectify the situation. In fact, it maintains thew focus on yourself. The person or group of people who have been harmed by your action confront you and you say something like "Oh, I feel so guilty. I wish I hadn't done that." And sometimes what happens here is that the other person or group of people end up talking to you about your guilt. Or they end up having to accept that you felt guilty, and that nothing else can be done about what happened. Of course, sometimes nothing else can be done, but that's not really the point.

Shame is more tricky, although I don't think in the end, it's any more helpful. For the most part, shame just universalizes a mistake or set of mistakes into a totalized view of one's self. Instead of feeling bad about a particular behavior and it's consequences, you see yourself as a "bad person" who will "never get it right."

Indulging in either shame or guilt, in other words, not only doesn't help rectify the original situation, but also creates a stickiness around the mistaken behaviors that keeps them fixed in your mind and body. You keep thinking about what happened. You create a negative image of your self around what happened. And so you end up carrying what happened, often long after others might have forgotten it.

What Buddhists, for example, tend to point to as a more proper response is a feeling of remorse. Remorse is tied to repentance for specific actions, which then can lead to a sense of compassion for yourself and others who have made similar mistakes. Being remorseful help break down the self-focus, and also burns through attachments to misdeeds through both the act of repentance, and also any decisions that aid in rectifying a situation.

What have your experiences been with guilt and shame? Do you see them as helpful or harmful?


NellaLou said...

This is really useful to contrast guilt, shame and remorse. In my view guilt is the internalization of shame. That is shame being a transgression of social boundaries. Often, especially as children we hear "Shame on you" for some mistake. When this is taken inside we say "Shame on me" to ourselves, this being guilt.

The concept of remorse is tied to actual responsibility for particular situations and not some free floating self or other judgment that constantly nags. Once remorse is evinced there isn't the kind of lingering self-disparagement that guilt leaves. And when others accept our remorse, aka forgiveness, social harms can be healed.

Not so with guilt and shame. These tend to linger and even be used as weapons in relationships. "Remember when you did xyz" "I'm just that type of unworthy person for having done xyz" They get to be like tape loops continually unresolved.

Guilt and shame are highly effective social control mechanisms. Manipulation via these mechanisms such as emotional blackmail and other controlling behavior can be really complicated and difficult to escape involving things like denial, lying, deflecting responsibility, escapism to avoid the feelings, acting out and projecting blame on others perpetuating the guilt/shame further.

This is a huge topic Nathan so I won't go on much further. Suffice it to say personal and social/relational responsibility and remorse are the way to go to avoid getting trapped.

Algernon said...

Shame is something that held me back a great deal in my training as an actor. Body image stuff, persistent habits, and social awkwardness turned into great goliaths and yet my mind was turned away from addressing these matters straightforwardly. Shame turned it all into a story: "I'm not meant for this, they don't want me here, I can't get it right," blah blah blah.

Nathan said...

I've also had a history of struggle with guilt and shame. And it goes way back in my family - generations worth. In fact, working with both got me interested in considering how we tend to stop with our parents when considering "family of origin" challenges, but actually the thread can be followed back far beyond one's parents. In some ways, this allowed me to soften around judgments of myself and others, given that these patterns are sometimes repeated in different ways through different generations for decades, even centuries.

Peter Clothier said...

There's one useful distinction I know between guilt and shame: I feel guilt for something I have done; I feel shame for who I am... I do like NellaLou's reminder that remorse is something different. Better still is the make-up--the skillful action taken to make amends for the unskillful one for which I feel remorse. Thanks for bringing up this important and troublesome topic.