Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Selfishness of Guilt and Shame

A few comments during a discussion at the zen center yesterday brought to mind the issues of guilt and shame. During the particular discussion, we were talking about the idea of praying for "buddhas and ancestors" to support us. What that meant. Whether such a practice resonated with each of us or not. And how it was different from mainstream Christian notions of praying to God or Jesus for support.

Anyway, all of that made me think about guilt and shame. (Yes, it's a bit of a leap.) And how both of them - in my view - increase the separation narratives we have that alienate us from our true natures.

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 the 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.

Buddhist teachings tend to point to remorse as a more appropriate response. 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.

I could write more, but I think I'll end it there for now.

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


willyh said...

Can you explain further about remorse? Do you mean regret and sadness as an alternative to shame and guilt?

Robyn said...

The topic of shame has come up a good deal over in this neck of the woods too. It definitely comes out of a misunderstanding of the true nature of things - it is a separation - but to call it selfishness feels a little harsh to me. As someone said recently (about our negative habits of mind that cause us so much suffering) - we come by them honestly. I know for myself, I am trying to be a little more accepting, less judging and a wee bit more gentle with these less-than-attractive qualities. We come by them honestly and they are not 100% of who we are.

Guilt feels a little more useful in as much as it is a sign that something is off and somehow, somewhere, we know this. We might know it just a little too late - the action has been made - but it seems like there is an opportunity there and it is a little more accessible. Shame feels more difficult, deeper.

Nathan said...

I agree Robyn about shame. It's a deeper pattern and the selfish label probably isn't too helpful there.

From what I've seen of guilt - in myself and others - is that it's a cover up emotion. And one that both feels uncomfortable and comfortable at the same time. Whether conscious or not, guilt often is used as an excuse to really face what's there. There's an initial awareness that something is off, but then it gets lost in the guilt story.

It's interesting about the word "selfish." I totally get the sense of harshness you point out. It's definitely one side of the word, the one that nearly everyone knows and responds to. And I agree that being more accepting and gentle about all this stuff is - at the end of the day - probably more helpful. I sometimes feel though that a lot of the language in modern Buddhist circles has gotten too soft, too easy. We've swung too far in the other direction from the harshness/roughness of some of our ancestors. There's a lot of metta, but maybe not enough sobering prajna triggers? I just know that I have learned a lot from the times when someone has skillfully told me something I said or did was selfish or born of unnecessary anger, for example. Hearing it stings, but it can also be the pivot to moving forward differently that doesn't come through softer acts of kindness. It just depends on where you're at I guess.

Nathan said...

WillyH - Remorse, to me, is about being aware that something you did or said had a negative impact on others. Or wasn't skillful. The awareness being key here. And from that awareness, compassion for everyone involved comes, and a desire to make amends if possible. The feeling tone might be sadness or disappointment or even regret - although I think regret can easily become a trap. People seem prone to regretting things long after they're over. Years. Lifetimes even. So, I tend to think it's good to let regret come and go, and deliberately work to let it go if you get stuck.

But the main thing is that remorse is about awareness of unskillful behavior.

spldbch said...

I never thought of guilt and remorse as two different concepts. Do you think there is some overlap?

Nathan said...

I think the biggest difference is the underlying direction. Guilt tends to loop back on the self. It's about what "I" did and how "bad" I am, or was. Whereas remorse is more other centered. Seeing how something you did or said negatively impacted someone else. They might look very similar in feeling tone, but I think they're pretty different actually.

The kinds of responses people give out of guilt often aren't very helpful. Precisely because the thinking pattern is self-referential to begin with. Whereas with remorse, it's more likely that someone might actually be able to make amends in a manner that is helpful or healing. Because the thinking around the situation already was focused on the other person or people involved.