Be sure to see parts one, two, and three here, here, and here respectively. In this piece we will examine the assumptions that lead to guilt, the structure of shame, and the antidotes to both. Guilt Q: “I often feel guilty for things I have done.” A: [S.N. Geonka ] “Guilt has no place in Dhamma [the path to enlightenment or ‘the law of nature’].” I assert that guilt serves no purpose in inter-personal relations. No legitimate purpose. Some say “if the person feels guilty or remorseful, then I can be assured they will not repeat this terrible wrong they committed against me” or “ I am assured of their good character”. Is this accurate? Let’s examine this together. Sharon slept with another man, violating the monogamous covenant she shared with her husband. She felt “bad” and out of guilt, told him the truth. She swore it would never happen again. Seeing how badly she felt, her husband felt assured this would not happen again and stayed with her and the marriage commitment. A few years later, Sharon was unfaithful a second time and in fact, carried on an affair with another man. This time she felt she best not be honest with her husband. How many chances would he give her, really? Unfortunately, he found out about it through some carelessness of hers and some direct questioning which followed. Again, she was authentically remorseful and felt guilty for misleading and breaking her husband’s trust—she did not feel bad just for getting caught, rather she felt authentically guilty for what she had done. They separated, sought counseling, and eventually divorced. Far from Sharon being a fiction of my mind for the purpose of illustration, this story is real, and the name has been changed. And, this is just one example of many I could give of patterns of behavior, remorse or guilt, and repetition of the problem behavior. Guilt is unreliable [at best] as a guarantee of future behavior. We have all seen people apologize and be guilt-ridden, yet commit the same acts repeatedly. I go so far in my own relations as to let people know very clearly that their guilt and apologies hold no currency with me. I WANT them to feel free emotionally about any “wrong” they may have committed against me. At the same time, I may not want them to commit the same act against me again—I do want assurance of a shift in behavior and an honest and earnest intention by them to do so through learning. For that, guilt does not help. In fact, it is a hindrance What is simply needed is their acknowledgement of the mistake and their pledge to not commit the act again. If it happens repeatedly, then there are practical choices to be made: do we continue to invest time and energy with this individual?
In essence, they need to demonstrate they have learned from the mistake. Not because we made them feel guilty by berating them subtly or not-so-subtly, or they made themselves feel guilty by beating themselves up, but because they noticed their own lack of integrity, or perhaps they did not live up to their own standard, or perhaps that the results that they produced by this mistaken action were unpleasant for all and should be avoided and in noticing that, they self-corrected in a clean and rapid way. Of course, we can simply take note and shrug our shoulders knowing that we are all on our own path. They are on theirs and I am on mine. And there are times, certainly, on the other end of the spectrum, where I choose not to associate with the person any longer. What is important through all of it is clarity, cleanliness of interaction, and grace where possible. Wanting someone to feel guilty or remorseful is one of the most selfish and ego-centric implicit demands we can make. It speaks to wanting the misery to be spread even further than it already has for our own short-term gratification. Whatever the case, the guilt simply clouds clear thinking, delaying the appropriate resolution of the conflict, and is therefore unnecessary and undesirable. Additionally, it is suppressive to the whole system and can lead to immune problems, which leads in turn to health and well-being problems. Why would we want that? As mad as it may seem, we do want it sometimes, don’t we? Not as above where we think Sharon “should” feel bad. But rather, one darker step further—we want her to feel bad. We enjoy it. Take pleasure in it. We feel it is deserved and appropriate. That it is “just”. We want it because they harmed us and we experienced misery and so we want them to feel miserable too. We want them to share in our misery. This is clearly madness. One person in misery is enough. Why expand the scope if not for dynamics of power and control or to exact a psychic price. Is this the world we want to create? Are those the dynamics we want in our relations? Again, what is ultimately important is not how the person feels about what they have done—but they take earnest steps to learn from our mistakes and integrate the leaning into our behavior. We want assurance that the event or act will not happen again and we have clearly seen that guilt does no such thing. Demanding guilt will only add more misery and heaviness in the air. And what about that? In an even clearer situation, what about “guilt trips” where we have done nothing “wrong” but we have not met someone’s expectations or social conditioning and they attempt to extract guilt, or worse, shame us? I will simply say that they are the crudest tools for influencing someone I have ever experienced and to reward someone for using it by allowing it to be effective only feeds the wild animal. Additionally, if we try and use guilt heavy-handedly when someone has overcome great fear to tell us the difficult truth, as Sharon did in her first transgression, we only assure ourselves they will feel less inclined to tell us the truth in the future, as we made it too painful. And in doing so, we have just killed off intimacy. Guilt, however, has a close cousin that is more complex and worthy of closer examination… Shame Shame is even more interesting to me than guilt, and its structure is more complex. Shame has several components:
- A compressed sense of time
- A case of mistaken identity
- An evaluation that is a confusion of logical levels
Time I have written before about our unconscious sense of time. When I work with clients who are experiencing shame, they invariably have a compressed sense of time. That is to say that their focus is limited to an act, an event, or a small series of events. Often, consciously expanding their sense of time while pointing out to them that that this act, or series of acts will not define who they are--which leads us to… A case of mistaken identity “The ultimate spiritual practice is dis-identifying from that which you think is you—objects in your awareness.” –Ken Wilber Who am I, who are you? What aspect of our lives are we identified with? Literally, we think [unconsciously] that we are our behaviors or our thoughts or our finances or our sexuality or our social reputation or our looks, or relationships or our…etc., and on and on. We can know this of one of three conditions are present:
- we have extreme fear about losing something
- we experience extreme misery or despair of one of these things is taken from us or we “lose” it
- we experience shame if it is jeopardized by our behaviors
Which leads us to… Behaviors, capabilities, beliefs, identity, spirit; logical levels of experience. If we have a confusion of logical levels, we will often confuse our behaviors, our capabilities, our beliefs, or our constructed identity with who we truly are, and therefore mistakenly judge ourselves by one of these levels. I behaved in XYZ manner and therefore I AM _______. But who we truly are is god, is radical spirit is pure consciousness or awareness, or even a learning being, a force of creativity, etc. Given all of that, what are the antidotes to guilt and shame? The antidote to guilt requires partnership: you must co-create clean relating with those willing and make explicit agreements around guilt and learning. Specifically that guilt holds no currency and learning holds a pot of gold. Guilt is “out of bounds” either self-imposed or demanded. It is that simple. It may not be easy, but it is simple. The antidote to shame is more complicated, and more rewarding, in my opinion, and has more lasting benefits that ripple out to all areas of your life. It requires several steps of skill acquisition, and therefore continual practice:
- Develop emotional awareness; notice when you are in the shame
- Develop perceptual flexibility; step out and notice your emotional state thereby dis-identifying from it [NOT disassociating, but rather dis-identifying]
- Expand your focus to include other positive representations of your behavior, and consciously expand your unconscious sense of time
- Remind yourself that whoever you think you are [behaviors, etc.] you are more than that.
- As always ask yourself: “how am I responsible” and “what can I learn?”
- Add resources and imagine yourself behaving with these additional resources in the future
As you read this, and review it in your mind, you can begin to imagine, even now, how these practices and skills would give you choice and eventual freedom—and not just from shame, but with full integration, from all unnecessary negative emotional experiences. Join me in creating the kind of world in which we all want to belong. A world in which unnecessary negative emotional experiences are known to be just that—unnecessary—giving us access to a world of choice, and through that choice, joy and freedom, and through that, beauty of unknown richness. *acknowledgements: as usual, these I.D.E.A.s were inspired by [but may not be reperesentative of] work by minds greater than mine.