Sunday, November 18, 2012

Guilt and Shame

This week I've been thinking about the difference between guilt and shame. My therapist tells me there is a difference. Guilt, she says, can be healthy--I feel guilty that I yelled at my cousin, or I feel guilty that I made my boyfriend feel bad. But shame is negative. Shame is self-hatred. Shame is despair and loathing and imposed by society and other people.

The thing is, I don't know how to tell the difference. Shame rings in my head. It's a harsh word. It pings and cuts. But guilt is deep and hollow. Guilt doesn't drive me towards anything--apology, change. Guilt sits like a pit in my stomach. A peach pit, say, wrinkled and brown, squeezed down my esophagus and stewing in my gut. Guilt is the way I was raised (not intentionally, no, but I was young and obsessive and it seeped into my brain like orange juice). Guilt is the way I defined myself, what decided my actions. Should I read my scriptures for a half hour a day? If not, I'll feel too guilty to sleep. (This was often tricky, since I was OCD; the New Testament has such short books, but I couldn't move onto another book once I finished a certain book in the same night, so I just had to read the same verses over and over and over and over again until the time was up.) Did I snap at my brother? Yes, I feel guilty, and I have to keep leaving my room and apologizing over and over and over again until my mom snaps at me to stop, okay, we get it.

The notion that guilt can be healthy isn't new--I remember the seminary video starring Aaron Eckhart, the groom of a despoiled bride who didn't want to cancel her wedding because she felt "the shame of the world." Not until she felt the "shame before the Lord" could she repent and move towards a temple wedding again. Strangely enough, that video didn't do a lot of good--it sparked a thirteen-year-old panic about canceling a wedding the day before and the shame of having everyone know you'd done something wrong, even though the point of the video was to teach us that if we feel embarrassed, we're just being wordly--we need to feel guilty about hurting God's feelings and breaking his commandments, not about calling all of our invitees and un-inviting them because, oops, we're whores!

Anyway, I'm still working on figuring out the difference. It's okay to feel guilty if I do something that hurts someone else, as long as that guilt is healthy--inspires me to action or apology (not excessive apology, that compulsive habit of my childhood self). Shame is a more ambiguous concept, which makes it harder to figure out how to eliminate. The only thing I can think to do, now, to counteract it, is to speak positively to myself and others: You look fine today. In spite of arguments to the contrary, suicidality is not a sin. This is not your fault. There are good things about you.

I once had to make a list of the things I liked about myself for a Women's Health class (which, tangentially, I took my senior year of college and which was my first introduction to birth control, pregnancy, and what the hell menstruation actually is--all good facts that should never be denied to ANY woman, including girls who grow up in Provo. Thanks, Utah's educational system!). First I had to list ten things I liked about my appearance. Then I had to list ten things I liked about myself--my character, my personality. It was surprisingly, shockingly, embarrassingly hard. Which only served to make me more depressed, of course. But it was a good lesson for me to learn. In order to eliminate all that excess shame that society and family and random acquaintances and kids from high school on my facebook wall and even I pour all over myself like hot tar, like wax, like eggs pelted from a car window, I should spend some time each day thinking of things I like about myself. Try to chip away at the icy cave I sometimes feel I've sealed myself away in, severing myself away from myself and the good things in life that I love and like, and the people I care about.

Anyway, if any of you have insights about the difference between guilt and shame, I'd love to hear them. I'm still trying to figure it out myself. Have a lovely week, everyone, and a fun Thanksgiving. I wish my aunt's A-MA-ZING mashed potatoes on you all!

The poem of the week is for those of you, who, like me, suffer from SAD--Seasonal Affective Disorder--that is slowly settling on us all as the November gloom descends. Emily Dickinson gets us.

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons – 
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes – 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – 
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are – 

None may teach it – Any – 
'Tis the Seal Despair – 
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air – 

When it comes, the Landscape listens – 
Shadows – hold their breath – 
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death – 


  1. I really appreciated your insight on this, and especially on speaking to the different functions of guilt and shame, which is what I would add. Guilt usually motivates me to do better, change myself, and make right whatever I feel guilt over. Shame, however, has no real function or purpose other than to make me feel bad about myself. Maybe that's because when I only feel shame, it is never about something that I did wrong, but instead what other people perceive to be wrong. And those claims have no rational base.

  2. I think I agree with Ryan about the function of guilt vs. shame. You might want to consider reading "Healing the Shame That Binds You" by John Bradshaw. It's not the most exciting read in the world, but I remember it having a lot of useful insights into what shame is and where it comes from.

  3. In my life, shame (or the belief that I was bad) was THE foundation. Everything I thought, believed, felt and did all came on top of the belief that I was bad.
    There was no "healthy" guilt, because of the basic belief that I was bad, and therefore could never do anything to make up for that. Every time I felt guilt, it was just more proof of my "badness", and I would do anything to NOT feel that.

    For me, guilt was just a form of fear. I felt afraid of what it meant if I didn't do.... I felt afraid of how I would feel if I didn't do.... I felt afraid of disappointing or hurting someone. I felt afraid that someone wouldn't love me.

    Guilt is ONLY the emotion that lets you know you are not doing what you believe you should be. For someone that is overly perfectionist and OCD, guilt can crush you, because you will never live up to your perfect and OCD ideals.

    I don't let guilt be a motivator for me. I still feel it, but I have found that I don't need guilt to get me to be a "nice" person. I just am. I do things because I want to do them, and life is a lot more peaceful.

  4. Sorry for taking so long to respond to your comments! These are all lovely. Jo, I'll definitely look into that book. Ryan and Jen, I agree wholeheartedly! Thanks for your lovely words : ) Jen, I hugely identify with everything you said. That basically sums up where I am right now--but trying to move towards the doing what I do because I want to. It's hard! But knowing that you can do it makes me feel like I can keep trying. Thanks, all you lovely humans : )

  5. What a great post... Brutally honest--which I love!
    I think everyone experiences shame and it's a really hard one to let go of.
    I agree with the other comments about the difference. I still feel guilty for what a jerk I was during teenagehood, but I'm not ashamed of who I am anymore like I was through most of college.
    The thing to remember is just as you said in the first part--guilt is from hurting someone because we made a stupid decision, but shame is imposed by society and those outside of us rather than any particular action of our own.

    I love you, Kylie! I hope you are well. And I love EmilyD, too :)