Skip to main content

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.

What is shame?

Here's how a few people have described it.

Nando Pelusi:

The opposite of shame is not shamelessness—a completely different problem. Nor is it lack of conscientiousness. The opposite of shame is awareness of the effect of your behavior on others, without putting yourself down about your errors. Pride, on the other hand, is the obverse of shame.

David M. Halperin and Valerie Traub:

...although shame is a very old word (present in medieval and early modern Western cultures), its specific role as an internalized mechanism of discipline is a peculiarly modern invention—part of the 'civilizing' process, as Chauncey and Helmut puff note. Not only has the production of shame been uneven; not only has it taken different forms. Shame came into being under certain conditions of modernity.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick:

In the developmental process, shame is now often considered the affect that most defines the space wherein a sense of self will develop ('Shame is to self psychology what anxiety is to ego psychology—the keystone affect'). Which I take to mean, not at all that it is the place where identity is most securely attached to essences, but rather that it is the place where the question of identity arises most originally and most relationally.

Wendy Plump:

I hate my betrayal, but I also hate his fury. It doesn't matter if it makes sense or if you have no right to feel it. Their rage fills you up with your own rage. Mixed with shame and guilt, it is a wretched cocktail to swallow. It is horrible to hurt your spouse, and it is horrible to feel his rage at you. As though you are a bad child. As though you're the worst child in the world. It runs through you and connects you to every instance when you were bad and were found out, clear back to childhood. It is a very distinct feeling of shame. I wanted to spit the feeling out. I wanted to bash walls.

James Gilligan:

We all know that shame motivates the wish for concealment, the wish not to be seen; the word itself comes from Old Germanic roots meaning to clothe or cover oneself.

* * *

The relationship between shame and genitals is so close and inextricable that the words for the two are identical in most languages. In Greek, for example, pudenda means both shame and genitals; the French word for shame, pudeur, and the English word for genitals, pudenda, both derive from the Greek. In German, one expression for the genitals is Schamteile, "parts of shame." In early translations of the Bible, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word shame was used to refer interchangeably to the genitals and to the emotion, shame, that is so closely associated with the genitals. Even in contemporary English, the use of the word "privates" to refer to the genitals communicates this same connotation — that the genitals are sources of shame, and are hence (like anything that is shameful) to be concealed or kept private.

Karl Miller:

Philosophers have thought about the difference between shame and guilt and about the difference between a shame culture and a guilt culture. For my part, I haven't been able to get beyond the untutored view that shame is likely to be a result of the public exposure of an act experienced by the actor as wrong, but that the two states are often indistinguishable.


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.

"No Shame on You." Nando Pelusi. Psychology Today. January/February 2008. p. 65.

"Beyond Gay Pride." David M. Halperin and Valerie Traub. In Gay Shame, edited by David M. Halperin and Valerie Traub. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. p. 37.

"Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity: Henry James's The Art of the Novel." by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. In Gay Shame, edited by David M. Halperin and Valerie Traub. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. p. 51.

Wendy Plump. Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs). New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

James Gilligan. Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. (1996) New York: Vintage Books, 1997. pp. 64, 83.

Karl Miller. "'When there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.' - Samuel Johnson." Robin Robertson, ed. Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame. (2003) New York: Perennial, 2005. p. 173.


Popular posts from this blog

Castration at the Battle of Adwa (1896)

On March 1, 1896, the Battle of Adwa "cast doubt upon an unshakable certainty of the age – that sooner or later Africans would fall under the rule of Europeans." In this battle, Ethiopians beat back the invading Italians and forced them to retreat permanently. It was not until 1922 that Benito Mussolini would again initiate designs against Ethiopia; despite Ethiopia's defeat in 1936, the nation ultimately retained its independence. "Adwa opened a breach that would lead, in the aftermath of world war fifty years later, to the rollback of European rule in Africa. It was," Raymond Jonas wrote, "an event that determined the color of Africa." (p. 1) It was also significant because it upheld the power of Ethiopia's Christian monarchy that controlled an ethnically diverse nation (p. 333), a nation in which, in the late 19th century, the Christian Emperor Yohannes had tried to force Muslims to convert to Christianity. (p. 36) The Victorian English spelli

Review of Cliff Sims' 'Team of Vipers' (2019)

After he resigned his position, Cliff Sims spent two months in Fall 2018 writing Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House . Many stories are told, some already well known to the public, some not. One buys this book, most likely, to gape at the colossal flameout spectacle that is Donald Trump, as with most things with Trump's name. Sims exposes the thoughtlessness, the chaos, the lack of empathy among his fellow insiders in the campaign and later in the White House, but he does not at all acknowledge the real consequences for ordinary Americans — there might as well be no world outside the Trump insider bubble, for all this narrative concerns itself with — and therefore falls far short of fully grappling with the ethical implications of his complicity. Previously, Sims was a journalist. "I had written tough stories, including some that helped take down a once-popular Republican governor in my home state," he says. "I had done my best to be

The ‘prostitute with a gun’ was a middle-class high school girl

On May 19, 1992, Amy Fisher, a 17-year-old high school student in Long Island, N.Y., rang the bell at the home of 37-year-old Mary Jo Buttafuoco. Buttafuoco stepped onto her front porch and had a brief conversation with the girl, whom she had never met before. Fisher then shot her in the face and fled the scene. Neighbors heard the shot and rushed to Buttafuoco's aid. She regained consciousness the next day in a hospital and was able to recall the conversation with her attacker. This information helped police to promptly identify and arrest Fisher. Fisher's explanation of her action shocked the nation. She claimed that she had been lovers with her victim's husband, Joey Buttafuoco, 36, since the previous summer when she was still only 16. While those who knew Buttafuoco believed him to be a pillar of the community, Fisher said he perpetrated auto theft scams. She claimed he introduced her to a life of prostitution, such that she wore a beeper to her high school classes an