Guilt and Shame

by David Arredondo

Many think that guilt can be fixed with punishment. The problem, though, is when you try doling out punishment to yourself – using your own mind.

If this self-inflicted punishment were a one-time thing – if you simply noted your mistake and moved on, having once been guilty but now truly wiser – a little guilt can go a long way. The problem comes when this kind of self-punishment becomes a habit. A “mind rut” of constant self-deprecation can be harmful, as it tends to stick around long after it’s served its usefulness.

If in the process of self-punishment for guilt you turn to obsessive thoughts, another problem may arise: You may begin to believe your thoughts and think your punishing self-appraisal is the way things really are. You can actually change your reality – for the worse.

These mind tricks may be why cultures and religions have developed rituals, procedures and mechanisms for sending guilt packing. In some cases, you go to a priest who tells you to recite a set of prayers. In others there are rituals for apologizing or external demonstrations of regret. The point is that once “fixed,” the guilt is ended in the person’s mind.

I know a man who carefully arranged a canoe trip with his 6- and 7-year-old sons to help them deal with the pain of their parents’ divorce. Although they spent three perfectly idyllic days together as a trio, just for a moment he lost his temper with the younger child (he and his brother were horsing around, the way boys do at that age).

To this day, that father has never been able to forgive himself for his angry and hurtful outburst. It is the only thing he can remember, emotionally, about the trip. The two nights and three days simply recede into a blurry background as the memory of the wounded look of his younger boy invariably returns to break the father’s heart each and every time.

The difference between guilt and shame is an interesting one. Guilt is a kind of fear of punishment. Shame is a fear of ostracism (e.g., The Scarlet Letter).

Shame is usually feared more. Having shame is worse than having regret or remorse. Even after guilt is gone, shame can remain.

I once asked a 7-year-old boy the difference between guilt and shame. He told me without even a hint of a pause, and I have never forgotten what he said:

“You can’t fix shame.”