|Started 150206 -- Latest Update: 151130
|Remorse: Moving Beyond Guilt,
Inadequacy, and Shame
(c) 2015 by
The words shame, guilt, inadequacy, regret, and remorse all convey the sense that 'something is
amiss'. If we are to use these five words well (whether we are expressing them or hearing them) --
and why else would they have been invented? – we must be minutely aware of how they symbolize
different qualities of emotional energy. This essay, written by someone who reached senior citizen
'status' before being able to distinguish accurately between these five words, is not intended to
compete with dictionary definitions. My purpose, rather, is to distinguish between the energies they
symbolize so that readers involved in problem-solving conversations may use them in ways less likely to
escalate into arguments and more likely to facilitate mutual learning. It begins with a section elaborating
distinctions with that purpose, describes an instance of remorse being expressed between two
colleagues whose relationship had broken up, and then explores the implications, briefly sketched in the
exhibit above, that I draw from what then happened for avoiding bias in problem-solving teams. Along
the way it provides links to other essays on this website that elaborate its more complex concepts.
Guilt is when you have done something you know others feel was wrong and you know, more or less,
why they feel that way. Guilt follows an offence you have made against others evaluated by
conventional standards. Guilt does not mean you agree such standards, and so does not necessarily
mean you think what did was truly an offence; but you do know that your behaviour did not meet
whatever standards most people in your world consider to be ‘right’. In instances of guilt you may, or
may not, have had the ability to conform to others' standards, but whichever was the case, you have
guilt when you know you did not meet a conventional standard and more or less why others who know
about your action, are feeling you were wrong not to have done so. Guilt is therefore an emotion
arising out of your knowing you have contravened a cultural convention and/or a legal standard.
Inadequacy, by contrast with guilt, is when you believe yourself unable to live up to a standard to
which others can and commonly do, and you may or may not regret that. Inadequacy does not
definitively mean you will not be able in the future to live up to such a standard, but it does mean that,
in the matter at issue, you know you were incapable of doing any better.
Shame, by contrast with inadequacy, is when you not only know your behaviour was inadequate by
some standard, but you also know you did actually want your behaviour to meet that standard and
now are afraid, even terrified, that that will never happen. Shame is thus a feeling of utter and
irremediable social powerlessness accompanied by anxiety people will consider us worthless or worse.
Because shame is such a painful energy it can often lead to depression and sometimes even suicide.
It's an emotion that has evolved virtually uniquely among and, because its experience endangers our
survival, we appear to have evolved an 'instinct' to avoid experiencing shame. When shame 'is in the
offing' but not consciously evident to us, this 'learned/evolved instinct' controls us -- probably so that
we do not then have to expend enormous amounts of energy to reground our self-image and
generates an automatic trait of behaviour characteristic of the person exhibiting it. For example, when
that 'instinct' is evoked by something in our environment, we typically bridle proudly, scornfully,or
anxiously, and then either withdraw, become hostile, or otherwise distract others attention from
examining us too deeply. Shame may then manifest to others as either dysfunctional behaviour or a
seemingly characteristic masking of anxiety or angry resentment (perhaps even a background rage that
others sense sufficiently to want to avoid). Resolution of shame, which may take years but could
happen swiftly and suddenly, occurs only we have learned how our condition of feeling socially
powerless can be remedied. In some cases we discover to our surprise that we had been
misinterpreting others’ standards.
Remorse is regret that we once perceived a situation in a way that triggered our characteristic instinct
to avoid shame. Remorse becomes a conscious replacement of what once had been pre-conscious
shame; and in the measure we learn that our perception at the time was in some specific way
inaccurate, and thus -- in retrospect -- unfair, or incomplete, we 'heal'. We now know that, if we had
perceived the situation more thoroughly, we would have behaved in a more rational, or at least
reasonable, way. Remorse comes as an enlightenment from regret. The emergence of more troubling
experiences has precipitated a process, sometimes a long one, by which we discover that masking
shame has been an unconscious feature of ours in interactions we now regret; and we now want to do
something to make amends for behaviour we now recognize was shamefully reactive rather than fairly
responsive (i.e. rationally 'decent'). We may not yet know either what would be an adequate amend
nor how to make such an amend actually happen; but the energy of remorse is surely directing us to
explore in such directions.
If we find, especially in ourselves, perceptions that are holding us in frames of mind dominated by either
guilt or shame or a felt necessity to mask such feelings, we can grow in emotional maturity by
wondering whether they might be indications we are beginning an experience of remorse.
REAL LIFE INSTANCE OF REMORSE
About a year ago I decided after much reflection to phone a client whom I had tried for a long time to
get to respond to emails requesting a meeting to review the aftermath of a year-long engagement that
he had ended abruptly. His ending our relationship had been painful for me, not primarily because it
had affected my income seriously -- it certainly had, but mainly because for several months we had
been very close collaborators in a remarkably successful problem-solving effort on whose success the
survival of his company had hinged for months, even years.
On hearing my voice my former client and collaborator immediately responded with these exact words:
"I have remorse I haven't been in touch with you". This surprised me. But, because his words had
used the IHXEN format, and because this highly unusual way of expressing emotions we ordinarily
suppress had been a much discussed feature of my contributions to the collective success, I found
myself replying "You've no need to be ashamed". To which, to my shock and alarm, he replied -- with
noticeable anger: "Don't interrupt!"
He then went on to explain that he 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. What was clear was that he hadn't elevated calling me to the level of a 'take-
action' priority, so I could only infer that he hadn't been holding as positive an opinion of what would
have happened if he had called me as I thought was justifiable. But our phone call soon drove that
dispiriting idea from my mind for we soon reached agreement to set an appointment to meet; and, in
the event, our meeting turned out to be both very enjoyable and productive for the further evolution of
IMPLICATIONS FOR PROBLEM-SOLVING IN TEAMS
I later reflected on the moments surrounding my reply to his expression of remorse. At the time the
words 'you've no need to be ashamed' emerged from me, I had implicitly been assuming I would be
contributing the equivalent in 'emotional connection' of giving a hearty 'No problem' response to
someone saying 'Thank you' for a significant contribution to his/her life. But his immediate reaction had
actually been a sharp "Don't interrupt!" so clearly I had been presuming. Perhaps his reality had at
some point been close to shame, but that is speculating, of course. Yet I had noticed in recent years
that I sometimes find I am behaving in ways that I can only later explain later as unconsciously avoiding
an unwelcome irruption from deep inside my psyche (or System 1 in the terminology of Nobel
prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman) of shame.
I doubt I'm the only person who's had that experience. The feeling of utter and irremediable social
powerlessness accompanied by a terrifying fear of being socially outcast is one that is likely to have
happened -- if only accidentally, perhaps in childhood -- to virtually everyone. But then we acquire,
through experiences leading us to believe that other people either think we are valuable or would think
that way if they heard 'our' particular estimations of what we have to contribute, defences against such
feelings recurring. As a successful entrepreneur, my client would certainly have developed some shame-
avoidance talent; so, in that light, perhaps his 'Don't interrupt' reaction was evidence of an emotion of
hurt on his part at my presuming he had been ashamed. In any case I myself soon experienced a
moment of shame, relieved in due course by remorse, for having made a remark that he had obviously
felt was presumptive!
Let's conclude by reviewing the exhibit you saw when you opened this web page. It's a schematic
drawing attention to the problematic nature of the irruption of unresolved shame, and it points to the
well-established phenomena of automatic behaviour traits being formed in surviving from traumas.
From an energy perspective, subconscious neurological energies shaped in the instincts by which we
survive traumas rigidify our personalities in character traits that often bias team problem-solving. At a
global species level, I suppose we must now begin to acknowledge that no matter how successful some
people appear, everyone has at least some unresolved shame. If so, then this will often be an factor
successful people will have to acknowledge limits the efficacy of our efforts as a species to solve social
problems. Leading protagonists are likely to be insensitive to the issues of big decision-making, and
following agents are likely to fail to think rationally about small decision-making. We can see this in the
fault lines of conflict between left and right ideologies, East and West civilizations, and North and South
divisions over how to manage climate change.
So, can we solve the growing list of vexing problems so many of us, in this first quarter of our brave
21st Century, fear are becoming impossible to solve? My view is a skeptical optimism: we can, but only
if many more of us become consciously aware of the following processes of emotional intelligence:
o recognizing and acknowledging when bravado, hypocrisy, and pedantry -- among other behaviour
flaws -- are trapped, albeit accidentally, in our personalities and blocking problem-solving
o allowing ourselves to experience enough moments of the paralyzing state of being known as shame
for that to evolve into actionable remorse, out of which, with faith and effort, we can grow our
capacities for truly fair problem-solving.