I took the photo above from a Sandler Training: Lushin Site's essay that gets at the same idea I had for this post. Sandler published earlier. I'm often late to the party, but since being slow hasn't stopped me in the past, I won't let it bother me now. Besides, the possibility exists that you haven't read Lushin's good advice.
The idea for my post came to me while reading Yaa Gyasi's Transcendent Kingdom, which I read with my Noble Horizon book club, an astute group of avid readers. (Hi, friends!! I'm looking forward to reading Maggie Shipstead's book with you starting next week.) In the novel, a sister feels shame about her brother's addiction. Gyasi's apt representation of the ways shame pervades the character's psyche demonstrates the destructive power of shame. While reading, I kept thinking that she shouldn't feel responsible for her brother's choices/life/problems, and these thoughts led me to contemplate the distinction between guilt and shame.
We feel guilt when we've done things we later feel bad about. We feel shame when we consider ourselves bad people. Shame, therefore, has nothing to do with taking responsibility for a particular action; more, it takes ownership of an entire bad opus, making a person out as bad to the core. I can't feel guilt about something you've done, but if I see your actions as reflecting on me, I can feel shame. One of my Noble readers brought up the idea of "bringing shame on one's family," a common phrase that strikes me as patently unfair and destructive.
First, I'll talk about why I hope to avoid shame. It's not a productive emotion. Since shame doesn't come from something we've thought or said or done, we don't have control over its genesis. My feeling shame makes me feel bad while not fixing the situation. What a waste of feeling bad!
On the other hand, I feel guilt when I've done wrong. Rather than hold onto that feeling, I'm trying to learn from it, to do better next time. We can't change our pasts, but we can figure out how not to make the same dumb choices, to broaden the options we see until we find the one that won't cause regret (closely related to guilt). There's no reason to let guilt weigh us down if we use it to travel a better path ahead.
Guilt can fuel us to do better, while shame tells us we're not worth the effort...and we're all worth the effort.
Of course, writing about living without shame sent me down a Shameless IMDB rabbit hole (the 2011 Chicago version, obviously, rather than the 2004 BBC original). In case you haven't seen it, I'll let you know that the show has nothing to do with the difference between guilt and shame, but I find it hysterical. Moreover, a Hotchkiss alumna and faculty daughter (Hi, CF!) has been on the writing team for some episodes. Pretty awesome.
I ask you to consider how you feel after things don't go as you'd hoped. What are your thoughts on guilt, shame, and regret? Please share your ideas in the comments.