Overcoming Shame: Are We Guilty Of A Guilty Conscience?

Posted at 18:00pm on 6th January 2009

I was reading about a man – Jeff Lucas – who described himself, in his younger years, as a “shame addict”. The term resonated with me and sparked a sitting-up in bed, early morning debate – though, sadly, without a cuppa to accompany it.

“That describes me years ago,” I said.

“Yes!” my husband agreed. “But what did you feel ashamed about?”

“Everything,” I replied.

It made me think. What are guilt and shame? Are they the same thing? Is it good or bad to experience them, emotionally? Is their absence in someone’s life a sign of arrogance or ruthlessness?


I wrote, a few days ago, about feeling vaguely depressed since Christmas, and identified several areas in which my relationship with family members had left me with a sense of having failed. Guilt and remorse were, undoubtedly, the affect on my psyche. But whilst my heart was telling me, “could have done better; should have done better,” my head knows that that’s not necessarily true. Given the same set of unavoidable circumstances, namely, my father’s deafness, near-blindness and dementia, my response – to his nocturnal prowling in and out of bedrooms occupied by other family members, to his getting dressed or wanting to eat in the middle of the night, to his inability to join in a conversation or game, or refusal to go for a walk – would be equally unavoidable. I know, objectively, that you can only deal with this sort of thing to the best of your ability; and with the welfare of all concerned uppermost in your mind.

So, the Free Dictionary definition of a guilty conscience as “the remorse caused by feeling responsible for some offence” is not entirely helpful. My guilty conscience was not the result of any offence. Shouting at a man who is deaf and doesn’t want to wear his hearing aids is the only way of making yourself understood. A stairgate at the top of the stairs and a gentle “man-handling” him back to bed in the middle of the night are the only options when it comes to the safety of someone with macular degeneration – even when he then tells you, in no uncertain terms, that you’re a “bloody maniac.” And however distressing his condition, you’d have to be a saint not to lose your patience occasionally.


So – a sense of guilt, and actually being guilty of an offence, are not, necessarily, the same thing. To my mind, shame is something I may feel either about something done to me (if I were stripped naked, for example) or about something I have done, or not done – like failing to write my thank you letters after Christmas. Guilt on the other hand – well, actually, guilt may be on the same hand. Because rape victims often feel guilty, in the mistaken belief that they may have been partly to blame. Whereas the rapist, himself, though guilty as hell, may show no shame or remorse. Confusing, isn’t it?

But don’t just take my word for it.

On the Wikipedia website, cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict, cites shame as “a violation of cultural or social values, while guilt feelings arise from violations of one's internal values.” She continues: “Thus, it is possible to feel ashamed of thought or behaviour that no one knows about and to feel guilty about actions that gain the approval of others.” In the same article, psychoanalyst Helen B. Lewis argues that, "The experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus." Not much consensus, then, between the experts!


But where does it come from, all this guilt and shame? Are we born with it? Is it nature or nurture? It has been fashionable for some years, now, among certain celebrities and secularists, to promote a concept which suggests that guilt and shame are imposed upon us - and that this is to our detriment. To hell with guilt and shame, they say, embracing an unfettered expression of their chosen lifestyle. And who can blame them? Perhaps the hell and damnation, fire and brimstone, of some faiths and denominations has fuelled this belief?

So would life be a better experience for us all if we abolished the twin evils of a guilty conscience and a sense of shame? That, in fact, is what Western societies have endeavoured to do for the last decade or two. Mitigation – where background circumstances have been used to plead a case of understanding for the perpetrators of crime – have at times produced the absurd notion that they are the victims. Not unnaturally, the real victims have felt somewhat aggrieved.

Besides, as the excellent UK Channel 4 programme Dispatches Britain’s Challenging Children showed, last night, bringing up children with no moral compass is detrimental not only to others, but to the child himself. It made me weep to see little boys at primary school having to be restrained – for their own good – because their upbringing has offered them nothing in the way of reason or rationale. It was clear that persuasion had no effect on them at all when it came to offering inducements to go back into the classroom. These kids have, for the most part, learned only the realities of a belt around the ear, a grunt, or a torrent of abuse. What do they know of co-operation? Of community? Of communication? Yet, amazingly, whilst completely lacking in the skills or self-discipline needed to ameliorate their bad behaviour, some of them showed a moral awareness of its effects. They could not be said not to know shame.

I’m inclined to believe that though babies are born without shame when it comes to their nakedness, bodily functions or demandingness, a certain morality is hard-wired into the human psyche. A knowledge of Good and Evil. The Bible certainly teaches that this is so. God’s laws, we are told, are written into our hearts. Whether you believe the nature argument or not, there is evidence that suggests that we are undergoing a change of heart in matters concerning the nurturing of discipline. As the Dispatches programme showed, morality, and the shame and guilt that go with it, oils the wheels of society – in schools, at home and in the community. Moreover, it brings peace, comfort, fulfilment and education to the child to whom it is taught.


So where does that leave people like me, and Jeff Lucas, when it comes to being “shame addicts”? He rightly defines an addict as “someone who constantly thinks in a particular way, daily, hourly. Their mind is consumed with that substance or activity. Their behaviour is driven.” I asked, earlier, whether shame and guilt could be perceived as “good” or “bad” and I’ve concluded, above, that in context it is good. But at this level of addictive thinking, clearly, it is bad. And I’m glad to say that apart from the odd occasion when I’m tired – as post Christmas – it has no part in my life any more. Because Christian teaching should never be focused on the negative aspects of humanity, but on the divine aspects of a God who loves, who is merciful, and who, above all, is forgiving. If you want to know more, you could do worse than visit Jeff Lucas online. His website is: http://www.jefflucas.org/archive/200811

Photograph: Innocence

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