Guilt vs. Shame
By Larry Chadwick
A piece on wisdom on April Fools Day
I’m relieved to know that there is not a guru somewhere on a mountain that holds all the secrets to life and I never found him. Even more satisfying to me is to know that any of your friends may hold a gem of wisdom that can change your life. Just such a gem was recently shared with me. “Shame is the devil’s substitute for guilt.”
Because I have known shame so intimately in my life I argued with her about her gem. But she would not be moved and I abandoned the argument. Then I spent the next month unable to ignore her gem.
Guilt is an emotion that is intended to plague our conscience. Typically, for obvious reasons, it is related to poor moral choices. Should we listen to the code of our conscience we are then spurred into action. The earlier we act the easier it is to change our behavior pattern. First, guilt causes us to acknowledge that our behavior is wrong. Second, it causes us to seek forgiveness for our actions from those we have wronged. Third, guilt compels us to cease that behavior. Fourth, because of guilt we find ourselves in right standing with our conscience and in our relationships. Fifth, the outcome of acting on our guilt leads us to a better path of behavior. And in all five steps we have acted with humility thinking most about how our life effects our relationships. Should we choose to ignore the guilt that our conscience plagues us with then there is a significantly different outcome.
Shame is an emotion that is driven by pride. It is sinister because it parades itself in our heart as guilt. When our poor moral choices have continued past the signals of our conscience then shame subtly substitutes itself for guilt. First, because of shame we deny. Second, in our shame we begin keeping secrets. Third, shame leaves us to continue in our poor moral choices. Fourth, through shame we ignore the impact of our decision on our relationships. Fifth, shame persuades us we will stop our behavior even though we know we cannot. And the driving force in all five steps is our pride. Pride is the most self-centered of all traits. It serves first and only itself.
Guilt versus shame. We can acknowledge our behavior or deny it. We can seek forgiveness or keep it secret. We can stop our behavior or continue it. We can heal our relationships or not. And we can move on to a moral life or pretend we will. But in the final analysis ignoring guilt can only lead to shame and pride will eventually reap its reward, humiliation. Like all substitutes shame is ultimately void of substance. Guilt, however, leads to humility and healing. Humiliation versus humility. It seems like such an obvious choice. How grateful I am for the wisdom of my friend.
April 1, 2007
If tears could build a stairway and memories a lane,
I'd walk right up to heaven and bring you home again.