Guilt and Shame: Destructive or Useful?

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Guilt can be a very healthy stimulus to change our behavior for the better. Unfortunately many people seem to be nagged by a pervasive sense of guilt which stays with them no matter how moral a life they lead. But is it true guilt, or guilt’s nasty cousin shame, which causes such distress?

Psychologists have written reams trying to differentiate between guilt and shame, but the best way to describe the difference is to evoke our own feelings. Robert Karen, writing in the February 1992 Atlantic, gives a gut-wrenching example: A professional man, divorced, in his 50s, stands on a subway platform eyeing an attractive young woman. For a few minutes he fantasizes asking her out his suave charm sweeps her off her feet and before you know it they are in bed. He feels powerful, manly, irresistible. Then the fantasy is broken: she notices him watching her and shoots him a look of such disgust that he is instantly deflated. He suddenly feels that she sees him as he secretly fears he really is: pathetic, vain, a lonely old man who can’t form a real relationship. Though he quickly forgets the experience, he is thrown off stride for the rest of the day; he feels depressed, cranky, unable to engage in productive activities, without understanding why.

To me this example conveys the essence of shame. It is a deep, pervasive experience of loathsomeness or disgust about who or what we are. Where guilt, hopefully, is about specific actions that may be put right or forgiven, shame is about our core identity; the experience of seeing ourselves from another perspective, in the worst possible light; or of fearing that others see the secret self we keep hidden away and only remember when we’re forced to.

It’s interesting to me that shame seems to be linked with seeing and being seen. Heinz Kohut, a psychoanalyst who suggested some major alterations in Freudian theory, taught that children need the experience of being mirrored by their parents. children need to look in their parents’ eyes and see themselves reflected back with love and approval. Parents cannot do this constantly, of course; but parents who routinely show disapproval or disgust when their children are showing off, demanding attention, may be teaching the child that there is something shameful about wanting to be special. According to Kohut, such children may grow up unable to feel joy or pride and thus depressed and empty; or conversely they may engage in compulsive attempts to gain attention and recognition from others. These attempts are doomed to failure because the adult feels secretly there is something shameful about the need in the first place.

Christopher Lasch, in The New Republic of Aug. 10, argues forcefully that shame can be good. We seem to be trying to create a society that is free of shame in the hope that it will help us all feel good about ourselves; but feeling good, he argues, does not necessarily lead to growth, either of the individual or of society. Shame has value in that it implies modesty, respect for others, an awareness of one’s own limitations. This, I think, is the kind of shame that we learn as an inevitable part of growing up, of becoming a civilized adult instead of a wild child.

But there is a destructive, pathological shame which we would do well to try to eradicate. Parents need to have the capacity to experience the joy of the child’s unabashed narcissism, the LOOK AT ME! that every child demands. When we have so many single-parent families, when so many people are struggling to make ends meet and coming home stressed out, when parents are not getting their own needs met in the marriage, that can be a tall order. But it is so refreshing to shrug off adult burdens for a while and enter the shame-free existence of the child. We should all do it whenever we can.

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