We all experience guilt and shame, Terre Spencer writes, but do we even know what that means?
In the entire panoply of emotions, I cannot think of even one emotional pairing less engaging than guilt and shame. There are other emotions held in disrepute, even disdain, but only guilt and shame can evoke this scenario: a friend otherwise interested in the topics I write about suddenly recalled a heretofore forgotten appointment and took an immediate leave—mid-conversation. A conversation that he initiated.
We are, as a culture, that uncomfortable with guilt and shame, we leave our own conversations when shame rears its hideous head. Furious hatred is a more pleasant topic, at least promising a smidgeon of righteous gossip. Even suicidal despair is more easily understood and diffused. Really.
Fear not, this article is a description of the mechanics of these states, not an inducement into to either state. The movie reveals the purpose of guilt. Yet, the very words guilt and shame have such inchoate meanings that definitions are necessary to have a meaningful discussion. It seems that we would rather argue about the undefined rather than to stay with the discussion of exactly what guilt and shame really are. What are we even discussing?
Believed to be extremely unpleasant amorphous feeling states, guilt/shame are experiences we seek to avoid. Even if we are uncertain of the meanings of guilt/shame, we can know precisely who instilled such misery upon us.
To further complicate the issue, there are ideologies and individuals who condemn guilt/shame as useless or negative feelings. This, in turn, increases the shame of the person feeling shame. This phenomenon is known as a shame spiral—feeling bad and then feeling bad about feeling bad which makes one feel worse, for which one feels worse for feeling worse, ad infinitum. Our cultural ignorance about these two feeling states can too often entrap us into such shame spirals.
Addictions, depressions and other shame-based disorders seem epidemic in this shame-shaming, shame-denying culture. Years ago, I heard this definition: guilt is feeling bad for what one does and shame is feeling bad about what one is.
That seemed an acceptable, if unsatisfying, definition, and a start perhaps, yet I just had to dig deeper. Surely, that alone would not be the reason that my friend bolted from a conversation that he initiated. Surely, there was much more? The topic of guilt/shame causes such predictable reactions that I simply had to get the shovel and go psyche-digging.
Let’s go to the movie theater now. To see the movie that no one wants to attend.
Guilt: The Movie is Showing at a Theater Near You
So, imagine that Guilt: The Movie is showing at a local multiplex. Theatergoers are uncomfortably making their ways into the theater before the movie starts. Some have slipped into another movie or out the side door. Inside the theater, nervous chatter and the occasional giggle punctuate the preview trailers. No one wants to be here, for certs.
The theater audience is comprised of the following character types: (and I limit myself to the masculine pronoun here)
Mr. Happy-Talk-Pop-Psychology (Denial)
Mr. Rage-Against-the-Guilters (Power over)
Mr. I-Gotta-Go-Now (Dissociative avoidance)
Mr. My-Addiction-is-Calling-Me (Numbing)
Mr. My-Mother/My-Ex-Stars-in-This (Blaming)
The first to attempt to pierce the tension is usually Mr. Happy-Talk-Pop-Psychology who will state loudly enough for all to hear that guilt is a useless/negative emotion. His pronouncement commands everyone in the theater to feel better. Right now. If you note Mr. Happy-Talk-Pop-Psychology’s has no genuinely intimate relationships, you might want to consider his blanket denial of guilt as something more than acausal to his extreme emotional isolation. Take note, also, of his moderate to extreme exploitation of others. Notice that he kills his popcorn instead of chewing it. You just have to wonder.
Sometimes shame and guilt invoke a barely-contained seething rage. Which makes sense if one understands that guilt and anger are both very connected sentry emotions; each has information regarding our interactions with others. They are both social justice emotions if you will. I will return to the function of the feelings following a primer on the structure of the human psyche.
Mr. Rage-Against-the-Guilters takes this a wee bit further. He wants to frighten/control/dominate anyone who would ever again stir the feelings of shame in him. An otherwise nice fellow can be downright scary if Guilt: The Movie is playing.
Mr. I-Gotta-Go-Now is long gone by now. He did not even finish his popcorn.
Mr. My-Addiction-is-Calling-Me breaks open the hip flask of his drug-of-choice. He cannot be bothered with anything to do with guilt. Bottoms up.
Mr. My-Mother/My-Ex-Stars-in-This will regale everyone with the crimes against his noble spirit. Notice I said spirit, not integrity. His integrity left him long ago, probably no longer able to inhabit being so profoundly unwelcome.
None of these audience members even like each other. Just before the theater breaks into an all-out brawl, the previews suddenly stop. The projector light flickers a bit, and, for a moment, the theater is quiet. Everyone feels worse than ever. What gives?
A Primer of the Human Psyche
Because I find the Jungian concept of the psyche and its dynamics the most complete, I have created this diagram from several Jungian sources, primarily from Joseph Campbell’s Mythos I series. Everything above the horizontal line is conscious material: memories, reality, learning, thinking, anything that you know and that which you know that you know.
Think of each of us floating around—partially above the surface and partially below the surface of the collective unconscious. The diagram depicts one psyche, but it is actually quite crowded in there. Floating about in the unconscious are all other psyches.
All things below the horizontal line are unconscious—one cannot identify the contents of the unconscious, yet, from time to time, those contents can be felt as an amorphous mood that one cannot identify. Everything within the partial circle beneath the line is the personal unconscious; that is, the contents are or were real enough, but are not available to the conscious mind. Repressed, denied, minimized events and feelings are in the personal unconscious along with events that occurred prior to one’s being able to comprehend, both traumatic and mundane.
Within the personal unconscious is the personal shadow—that repository of all things that we have not claimed as our own, that which we both despise and that which we admire. The shadow is made of two parts: the things we have done that do not jive with our concept of ourselves, our morality—the dark shadow—and things that we admire in others, yet doubt we can ever be—the golden shadow.
On the diagram, the upper crest—the persona (or mask) one shows the world—is the place that one meets the others consciously (both other individuals and the collective consciousness), through the porous persona. A healthy persona has about the porosity of a jellyfish. It takes in from others and the collective and breathes out from the deeper self when appropriate.
That intersection with the world, the persona, is the place being monitored by both sentry emotions: anger, which looks outward for boundary violations, and guilt, which looks inward for relational violations against others and the self. If another transgresses unfairly or predates upon one’s psyche, anger is aroused to restore justice. Conversely, if one’s actions or inactions violate another, guilt is the means of alerting us to make amends, to behave in a fairer manner.
Guilt is a Social Sentry Emotion Looking In at Our Own Behavior
Anger, necessarily, makes us feel larger, more capable and powerful. Guilt reminds us that we need to contract, to consider others, that our own actions are threatening valued connections with others. Guilt, consciously knowing that we have caused offense to others, allows us to remain in integrity. Without guilt, there is can be no integrity. Guilt is our personal assessment that we did something wrong or that we failed to do something that was right.
The thought of shrinking in deference to others is often most unwelcome information that is promptly shoved into the personal unconscious. Guilt is conscious until it is too painful and then it is deposited with other information that one cannot process into the unconscious and/or personal shadow.
The overarching patterns of guilt-inducing behaviors are hidden in our personal shadows while the actual shame floats around freely in the unconscious untethered from the behavior from which it originated.
At this point, I would like to include that no one consciously chooses to make guilt into shame. When guilt’s information is too threatening or painful for the psyche, it is deposited in into the unconscious, this is not a choice, it is survival. At that point, guilt becomes shame.
Shame is Unconscious Guilt
When guilt is made unconscious it becomes personal shame. The specific behavior (that which would make it conscious) is thereby removed from the emotional content and it remains an intense feeling of leaden unworthiness which periodically connects with a specific guilt/anger or undeniable shame and surfaces as an overwhelming sense of shame. The helplessness one feels around these upcroppings is usually close to overwhelming.
Sometimes the guilt assessment is skewed by incorrect information or immaturity. The accuracy of the assessment does not change the emotional response of guilt. A four-year-old child may decide that if he were a good enough boy his alcoholic father would sober up, stop beating his mother, be a good father, and love him as his beloved son. The assessment is incorrect, but the intensity of the resultant guilt and shame remains in spite of the accuracy of the assessment. When his father continues to drink and things only get worse, the child almost necessarily slips into shame. Even though the child lacked the ability to accurately assess his familial issues, he is entreated to the guilt as if it were his fault.
The usual Western response at this point to push the shame back into the unconscious with active addictions, depression, acting out, rage, compartmentalization, denial, intellectualization and a variety of other defenses, strategies and combinations of strategies. We believe that by making shame unconscious again that we have banished it from our lives. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Shame is drawn from the personal unconscious, and can be augmented from the collective unconsciousness, traveling through the personal unconscious before cresting onto our emotional radars. In the unconscious, we are all surely one.
We invariably project the contents of our own personal shadows onto others. By seeing “out there” what we most despise and admire, we can begin to learn to relate to those characteristics without being overwhelmed by them. Projection is the primary way that we know the contents of our personal unconsciousnesses. It is perfectly normal, in other words.
Sometimes the contents of the unconscious make themselves known through other means, a mood that will not go away, and another unwelcome repeating pattern.
It is impossible to be alive, to interact with others, without feeling both guilt and anger. Why? Because they are the sentries of our interactions with others, sentries of our integrity, if you will. If one accepts exploitation by others, anger is aroused. If one exploits others, guilt is aroused.
Sure, one can numb one or both feelings and therefore be forever careening from exploitation to exploitation. Numb anger only and one will experience being exploited. Numb guilt and one will exploit others ruthlessly. Numb both and every interaction becomes a duel: the winner exploits the loser. All scenarios are unattractive and all lack integrity.
Stepping off the exploitation roller coaster and developing integrity is the most difficult adult undertaking. It is a lifetime process.
Mr. Happy-Talk-Pop-Psychology is at the concession stand trying to con the attendant into a free popcorn refill.
Mr. Rage-Against-the-Guilters is fuming onto the hairdo in front of him that is partially blocking his view. Of course, moving to Mr. I-Gotta-Go-Now’s empty seat has not occurred to him. Actually, the public has stayed away in droves from this movie. There are plenty of empty seats.
And Mr. My-Mother/My-Ex-Stars-in-This is still nattering on about the wrongs done to him. Oh, the guilt he has borne, year after year…um, does he remember a grocery list as well as he remembers the wrongs he has endured?
The theater lights dim.
Guilt: The Movie
The curtain opens.
Two old rivals, Anger and Guilt, learn to exist together and then discover how much they really need each other, finally uniting to fight exploitation together, Anger dealing with outside influences and Guilt with internal ones. Discernment played a supportive role in advising how and when pugnacious Anger should make itself known and how to mediate Guilt’s sometimes heavy-handedness.
Full of action, tension and reclaimed shame, Guilt: The Movie has character depth and action galore.
When Anger thought he could throw his weight around, Guilt promptly took him into a dark alley and Anger emerged with a two black eyes and a limp. Not a terribly quick study, Anger tried it again. Guilt took him to the same alley. The result was two more black eyes and a worse limp. The third time Anger got too big for his britches, he just walked to the alley without Guilt’s help and waited for the inevitable.
However, this time, Outside Danger lurked in the alley and Anger got them both out safely. Guilt discovered that he needed Anger as much as Anger needed him. After that, they were inseparable comrades-in-arms.
They reached in and unburied lots of shame while fighting evildoers. An action flick all the way around.
Spoiler alert: What was most astonishing was the surprise appearance of Integrity accompanied by Intimacy at the very end. Clearly, neither Anger nor Guilt was expecting that, although both knew that if they did not continue to cooperate with each other, Integrity would be leave and take Intimacy with him.
The curtain closes.
The lights come back on.
Wait, Mr. Happy-Talk-Pop-Psychology, Mr. Rage-Against-the-Guilters and Mr. My-Mother/My-Ex-Stars-in-This are long gone.
Oh, the men that are in the theater as the lights come on? They are men with integrity. Did they sneak into this movie? Are they men transformed? Men who stepped aside from their former defense mechanisms? I cannot know. They certainly do not seem to be anything at all like the men who entered this theater.
They look like they enjoyed the movie. They got it. They seem to be calling some of their guilt back from the depths…something sacred is occurring.
I would volunteer to be an usher at this movie. It would be such an honor.
The Beginning of Integrity
So how does one work with guilt and shame? Well, first, it is not easy. It is not simple, there are no Seven Habits of Highly Effective Guilt-Handlers. It is not fast, it takes a lifetime.
This is no job for ninnies. It takes full-on adulthood. If your definition of adult material is nude sexual posturing in front of a camera, you probably are still enjoying your adolescence.
If you are prepared, I suggest starting Robert A. Johnson’s Inner Work (plus anything else Johnson ever wrote) and Karla McLaren’s The Language of Emotions. A wise therapist can be very helpful. Being accountable to a group of some sort seems to help sustain emerging integrity. From there, trust your guilt to oversee your interactions (with others and intrapersonally), ever asking, “Who has been hurt/dishonored? What needs to be made right?”
(Questions courtesy, The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren)
photo: ricardodiaz / flickr