Mind Matters — Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame have been a part of the human condition and stories with these themes have attracted people’s attention since Adam and Eve. However, guilt and shame studied psychologically are two different entities and need to be differentiated from each other.

Fossom and Mason, in their book Facing Shame, regard guilt as a “painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions.” Shame, on the other hand, is a “painful feeling about oneself as a person”. When we are shamed, we feel defective, inadequate, unworthy. In some sense, we don’t even feel fully human. And, in fact, when someone shames us, there seems to be a covert if not overt sense that indeed the other does consider us as an inferior human, if human at all. With guilt, we distinguish between the misdeed or misbehavior and the one who has transgressed. With shame it is as though the person is defined by the transgression either by himself or by the community or by both. (When raised in a shame-based family, a person can so internalize shame that his perceptions are constantly colored by this lens so that even innocent interactions are seen as shaming.)

The lack of differentiation between the deed and the person often begins in the home, within the family system, where a child’s misbehavior, for example, is defined in a sweeping generalization of “you’re bad”, “you’re terrible”. Mr. Rogers and his songs have always been subtle antidotes to these shame based edicts. When Mr. Rogers would look in the camera and say “I like you just the way you are”, or sing about the very same people who act bad sometimes are the very same people who act good, he talks to all of us who have felt shame.

Fossom and Mason list some characteristics that they have observed in shaming families. Of course, these characteristics can be found in any group of humans: in schools, at work, within nations, in churches—any institution. Such shame-based groups are known by the need for control, the need for perfection, the use of blame, the use of denial, the rise of unreliability and inconsistency, incompleteness and lack of resolution and the lack of open and honest communication.

Dysfunctional shaming systems, be they families or otherwise, strive for control of behavior to allay a fearful anxiety about what might occur if things went “out of control”. These systems are rigid and lack flexibility and spontaneity to handle life’s vicissitudes. Not only is there a false sense of security, there is also a lack of accountability.

Aligned with the need for control, is the tyranny of “always being right”. This perfectionism has many faces. In a family, it can be about “keeping up appearances”, “what will the neighbors think”, “do we have the right house [or car, etc.]?” Some families suffer shame in a despairing way: that they will never be able to keep up with whatever imagined standard they have laid upon themselves.

Blame and shame also travel together. In an attempt to ward off shame’s grip, often a person (or institution or nation) will project blame on another. The perfect control model doesn’t work, life’s imperfections and insecurities are disturbing, so blaming and scapegoating are enlisted, giving an illusion of control.

Denial, unreliability and lack of resolution in communication are also signs of a shame bound system. Feelings, especially ones that convey any vulnerability, are not to be expressed. And where contact and rapport is expressed, in shamebound systems confusion can arise from sudden withdrawal of the positive connection. (A child raised in this sort of family may not feel safe even when positive emotions are expressed for fear of what will happen next.) And finally, in shaming systems, there is no real and honest communication. Conflict may be avoided, but under the surface lies much unresolved pain and frustration.

Not to despair. To change any shame-based system all it takes is the power of one. One person changing his or her own patterns of behavior can make a difference for generations to come.