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Getting the real work done: Guilt, not shame

The neurologist Robert A. Burton wrote: "Psychologists commonly divide certain feeling states into primary emotions, such as happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust, and secondary or social emotions, such as embarrassment, jealousy, guilt and pride.

Guilt is a kind of self-disapproval. Perhaps inevitably, it is empathy with someone else's assessment of you, since, if you discredit yourself, you cannot evaluate yourself. "In guilt," Merold Westphal wrote, "I approve the other’s disapproval of me."

Ralph Minogue quipped that "no form of human punishment seems enough to halt mistakes, so man designed guilt." I do not take this too literally, as humans do not exactly design guilt, and it often arrives unbidden — but we do cultivate it and craft our own flavor blends.

In her New York Times bestseller, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown explains that our feeling of guilt for our shortcomings can motivate us to improve our behavior, but that this is most likely to happen when we are free of shame – the belief that we are not worthy or capable of goodness.

...the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the differences [sic] between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.” ... When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends to others, or change a behavior that we don’t feel good about, guilt is most often the motivator. Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its effect is often positive while shame often is destructive. When we see people apologize, make amends, or replace negative behaviors with more positive ones, guilt is often the motivator, not shame. In fact, in my research, I found that shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can change and do better.

June Tangney has said the same thing. Christie Thompson wrote for the Marshall Project:

Psychologist June Tangney of George Mason University has studied guilt and shame among inmates, and found that shame isn’t the most useful emotion. (What’s the difference? Guilt means regretting an action. Shame means feeling bad about yourself as a person.)

And, again, the point from Joelle Casteix: "Unlike guilt, which is about an action (think: I have done a bad thing), shame defines people and who they believe they are (think: I am a bad person). People guilty of crimes serve jail terms. People with shame give themselves a life sentence."

The theologian Tom Beaudoin provides an anecdotal example of how guilt is a better motivator than shame:

At several conferences, I delivered sober jeremiads about the economic passivity of my generation and our implication in the exploitation of poor workers overseas. The nadir of my thundering happened after I had just spoken to several thousand Christians at an evangelical conference in Hawaii. On my way out of the arena afterward, a woman rushed up to me and grasped my hand and arm, gushing ‘Thank you! Thank you for that spiritual spanking you gave me!”

In that moment, I realized that being shamed into guilt was one way for Christians to avoid taking responsibility. There can actually be a spiritual frisson in scolding and being scolded, being reduced to a feeling of utter dependence on God – but on a God present most intensively in self-flagellation. Although I had many laughs about it later, I never wanted to give another talk that someone would experience as a ‘spiritual spanking.’

Moralizing was a way of redirecting my own guilt over my inability to change my economic practices. It was also a way of conveying my resentment that the costs of my discipleship – my sacrifices for my faith – were not being recognized by others. My moralizing was an expression of my envy that other people were not as troubled by their habits of consumption as I was becoming. The spanker is often also the spankee.

Some people may crave a gentle shaming, finding it spiritually titillating, but "being shamed into guilt" is not a path into a reforming guilt that enables them to change their behaviors. They don't need shaming judgments about whether they are bad people; they need tools for change. And, as Beaudoin puts it by saying "the spanker is often also the spankee," shaming judgments placed upon other people are often either projections of our judgments of ourselves or else anxious complaints that other people are not like ourselves. There is plenty of shame to go around. But it does not get the real work done.

Sources

Robert A. Burton. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. New York: St. Martin's Grffin, 2008. p. 36.

Ralph Minogue. Responsibility To, Responsibility For. Baltimore: AmErica House, 2000. p 32.

Merold Westphal. God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion. (1984) Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1987. p. 78.

Brené Brown. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Center City, Minn.: Hazelden Publishing, 2010.

"Public shamings: Why judges sometimes opt for sandwich boards, chicken suits, and other embarrassing punishments." Christie Thompson. The Marshall Project. March 31, 2015.

Tom Beaudoin. Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are with What We Buy. Lanham, Md.: Sheed and Ward, 2003. p. 41.

Joelle Casteix, The Power of Responsibility: Six Decisions that Will Help You Take Back Happiness and Create Unlimited Success. 2015.

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