Both guilt and shame involve judgments of inadequacy but the judgments of guilt and
of shame are by quite different people. Can we experience both emotions at the same
time? I don't know, but I suspect they can only alternate. In the best possible
outcome – which may only come years later, we learn how the shame-filled condition of
feeling socially powerless can be remedied. It is then we re-cognize that we had been
excessively either lax or demanding -- perhaps after misinterpreting others' standards.
Remorse is a form of regret, a regret of genuine humility. It may be that we once
perceived a situation in a way that we now recognize was significantly inaccurate. We
now have the insight that, if we had perceived the situation accurately, we would have
behaved differently. This usually means we now want to do something to make
amends, although we may not yet know either what an adequate amend would be or
how to make an adequate amend.
If we can discover perceptions that are holding us in frames of mind dominated by
either guilt or shame or a felt necessity to mask them, we can grow in emotional
maturity by wondering whether they might more truly be remorse. This idea came to
me after a call I placed to a client whom I had long tried to get to respond to emails
requesting a meeting to review the aftermath of a year-long engagement he had ended
abruptly. On hearing my voice on the phone he immediately said "I have remorse I
haven't been in touch with you". This was a surprise to me, and I automatically replied
-- generously in my belief then, with "You've no need to be ashamed", to which he
angrily replied: "Don't interrupt!". That was a shock to me and I became alarmed that it
was signalling the end of our relationship. Luckily for me, he then went on to explain
his remorse and it emerged that my client would have liked to have been in touch with
me but simply couldn't justify the time he felt he would have to set aside as a priority
among all the other things he needed/wanted to do. Of course, from my point of view,
the fact that he couldn't elevate calling me to the level of a take-action priority didn't
make me feel wonderful because it confirmed my feeling that he didn't have a positive
opinion of what would happen if he had called me. But that was a matter of
communication because, as it turned out, he was on the cusp of changing that opinion
for we soon set an appointment to meet and our meeting turned out not only to be very
enjoyable but also productive.
Sometime later, I re-cognized the hitherto automatic belief I had
had that expressing my diagnosis of 'no need for shame' was a
generous one. No, I had been presuming. That was a moment of
felt shame for me, a shame that only writing this essay is
resolving! So the point I take away from this story is that my
client almost certainly hadn't been feeling what I had been, from a
holier-than-thou pedestal, imagining he had been feeling.
Furthermore, he was entitled -- at least until I called him --
to believe his own sense of felt priorities.
In conclusion: to emancipate from feelings of shame or embarrassment, and the alarm
and anxiety that often go with them, I think we are wise to do is reassess what we are
feeling we should have done. What we did was something we did in the light of what
we felt was needed then. Did we have our priorities straight? Is there something we
need now to do to change the way we set our priorities?.
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|Guilt, Shame, Remorse, and Inadequacy:
Valuable Distinctions to Re-cognize!
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Principal, Authentix Coaches
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Regaining equanimity from anxieties related to emotions of guilt, shame or remorse --
all emotions related to feelings (judgments?) of inadequacy -- is not easy. Many of us
conflate the meanings of these emotion nouns at times. But they are different words,
so, if we are to make best use of them for communication with others (and ourselves!),
we will want to know more or less how they symbolize different qualities of the energy
flowing through us. I became a senior before discovering how to distinguish between
them in my own experiences. So, perhaps I can offer here some observations for those
of us not yet entirely clear as to how these energies differ.
We experience the emotion of guilt when we have done something that we know others
feel was wrong and we know at least a little of why they feel that way. Feeling guilty
does not mean we agree with their standards, but we do believe that our behaviour did
not meet whatever were their standards. We may, or may not, have had the ability to
conform to what we believed were others’ standards, but whichever was the case, if we
know both that we did not meet others' standards and a little about why they feel we
should have done so, feelings of anxiety or alarm may be afflicting us.
Shame is a different judgment of inadequacy. By contrast with guilt, in which judgment
is properly other people's, one experiences an emotion of shame when one has judged
(felt?) that one's behaviour was inadequate by one's own standards. Feeling ashamed
means that, in the matter at issue, we simply didn't behave as we believe we ought to
have done. What can intensify shame and make it almost unbearable is the belief that
we will never be able to meet the standards we believe to be socially reasonable. This
will be either because we cannot fathom what respected others' standards are yet think
we ought to be able to do so or because we have assumed we know their standards
while also believing we have no possibility of meeting them.
Shame then becomes an overwhelming anxiety of utter and irremediable social
powerlessness and outcasting. Because that is so painful, shame can lead to
depression, or even to suicide. But it can also erupt in moods of anger, i.e. rage.
When that happens it is serves the existential purpose that an unresolved shame not
be conscious to its sufferer. In a team, feelings arising from a team member's
unresolved shame can gravely bias the team's findings and lead to unfair, or other types
of problematic solutions: