Started 150206 -- Latest Update: 160810
Remorse: Hidden
Problem-Solving Treasure?

(c) 2015 by
Angus Cunningham

About a year ago I decided after much reflection to phone a former client whom I had tried for about 5
years to get to respond to emails requesting a meeting.  I wanted to review the aftermath of a year-
long engagement that he had ended abruptly.  That had been painful for me, not so much because it
had affected my income seriously -- it certainly had, but because for several months we had been very
close collaborators in a remarkably successful and innovative
problem-solving effort on whose success
the survival of his company had hinged for months, even years.

On hearing my voice this former client and collaborator responded with the words: "
I have remorse I
haven't been in touch with you
".  These words are a highly unusual way of verbalizing a summary of
feelings and, because a key feature of my contributions to the success of our engagement had been
the modeling of exactly that unusual format, I relaxed and the words "
You've no need to be ashamed"
automatically emerged from me.  To which he -- with noticeable anger and to my considerable shock --
replied: "
Don't interrupt!"  My feelings turned instantly to alarm and I began to regret having spoken.

'Regret' is a word conveying one's sense that 'something is amiss/wrong'
, but it doesn't indicate what.  
Words like 'guilt', 'inadequacy', 'shame' and 'remorse' are what we use to convey any sense of
responsibility we may have for a regret.  But, although these words are commonly used in the fields of
emotional intelligence and jurisprudence, are they well understood?  If we are to work well with them --
and why else would we bother with them? – we must be minutely aware -- whether expressing or
hearing them -- of how they each symbolize different qualities of emotional energy.  This essay, written
by someone who reached senior citizen 'status' before being able to distinguish accurately between all
four, is not intended to compete with dictionary definitions.  Rather, its purpose is to
between the four so that readers involved in problem-solving conversations may work, both with the
words and the qualities of energy each symbolize, to facilitate mutual learning and minimize escalations
into energy-wasting arguments.  It begins with a section elaborating the meaning of each; then
completes the story of what happened after my client told me angrily not to interrupt; and concludes by
exploring the implications, briefly sketched in the exhibit above, for avoiding bias in problem-solving
 Along the way you'll find links to essays that elaborate its less well-known concepts.
Guilt is when you've 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 with such standards, and so does not mean
you believe what you 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
the feeling of 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.  The feeling of
guilt arises 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 the standard in question, but inadequacy
does mean that, in the matter at issue, you believe you were incapable of doing so now.

Shame, by contrast with inadequacy, is when we not only know our behaviour was inadequate by some
standard, but we also know we would have want
ed our behaviour to meet that standard so that we are
now afraid, maybe even terrified, that we will never be able to do so.  Shame is thus a feeling of
irremediable social powerlessness accompanied by anxiety that people will consider us worthless or
worse.  Because shame can be such a painful and all-consuming energy it may lead to depression and
sometimes even to suicide.  It's an affect (emotion or mood) that has evolved especially among humans
(and the animals we have domesticated).  It's an experience endangering o
ne's survival, and so I
believe we have all evolved an 'instinct' to avoid it.  When shame 'is in the offing' (but not necessarily
consciously so to the person it would affect), this instinct controls us -- probably so that we do not
then have to expend energy on regrounding our self-images -- by generating a trait of behaviour that
subsequently is characteristic of the person exhibiting it.  Such traits seem to me to drive us to bridle
-- perhaps proudly and scornfully, or perhaps humbly and anxiously: we either withdraw, or become
hostile, or otherwise distract others' attentions from examining us too deeply.  Thus one's shame
manifests to others as either irrational or insane behaviour or as a seemingly characteristic masking of
either anxiety or angry resentment or merely a suppressed hostility that others sense enough to want
to avoid.  Resolution of shame may take years but may happen swiftly and suddenly: it occurs only
when we have learned how our condition of feeling socially powerless can be remedied.  We then
discover, usually to our surprise and relief, that we had been negatively misjudging our situation.

If regret is something we all know about,
remorse is an energy which may at some point follow regret
but it's an energy about which many of us are confused.  If we become conscious that we once
perceived a situation in a way that triggered a characteristic shame-avoidance trait, then remorse can
ensue as 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 accurately,
we would have behaved in a more
rational, or at least reasonable, way.  Thus the energy of remorse
leads to enlightenment from a buried shame and the isolations that accompany the unconscious anxiety
of experiencing shame.  Often, the emergence of more troubling experiences precipitates a process,
sometimes a long one, in which we feel remorse that hiding shame has been an unconscious trait of
ours.  We now want to do something to make amends for behaviour we acknowledge was shamefully
reactive rather than fairly responsive (i.e. rationally 'decent', although exactly what 'fairly responsive'
may mean in any particular situation is a deeply philosophical/spiritual issue).  We may not yet know
either what an adequate amend would be nor how to make such an amend actually happen. The energy
of remorse is, however, surely pushing us to explore such directions.

If we find, especially in ourselves, notions 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 these notions might be indications we are beginning an experience of remorse.
To illustrate this, let me continue the story of what happened in the phone conversation with my former
client.  You'll remember he had objected to my cockily hearty "
You've no need to feel ashamed" by
sharply telling me not to interrupt, and that I then felt shock, alarm and regret.  All I could then manage
was hope that he wouldn't hang up.  I may have said "
Sorry", but don't actually remember doing so.  In
any case, he soon continued by explaining that he would have liked to have been in touch with me but
simply couldn't justify the time he believed he would have to set aside as a priority among all the other
things he
needed/wanted to do.  He certainly hadn't elevated calling me to the level of a 'take-action'
priority, so I could safely confirm to myself my going-in assumption that he hadn't been holding as
positive an opinion of what, had he called me, would have happened as I believed was justifiable.  
Meanwhile I had taken 5 years to reach a state of surety that my calling him would have a good chance
of surfacing something positive in our once close relationship.  In the event our phone conversation
soon drove from my mind the alarm I had been feeling for we soon reached agreement to set an
appointment to meet, and our meeting turned out to be both very enjoyable and productive for the
evolution of my book.
I later reflected on the moments surrounding my reaction to his expression of remorse.  When the
words '
you've no need to be ashamed' were emerging from me, I was implicitly 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 emotion had at
some point been close to shame, but that is speculating, of course.  Yet it's certainly true that, in
recent years, I had been finding I had behaved in ways I could only explain later as unconsciously
avoiding an eruption of shame from deep inside my psyche (or System 2 in the terminology of Nobel
prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman).

I doubt I'm the only person who's had that experience.  The feeling of utter and irremediable social
powerlessness accompanied by a terror of being socially outcast is one likely to have happened -- if only
accidentally, perhaps in childhood -- to virtually everyone.  But then we acquire -- through experiences
which lead us to resume believing 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 his shame-
avoidance behaviours more than most of us do; so perhaps his '
Don't interrupt' reaction was evidence
of an emotion of anger masking hurt or vulnerability on his part at my presuming he had been
ashamed.  In any case I myself soon experienced a moment of shame -- relieved, mercifully quickly, by
remorse -- for having such poor emotional intelligence as to have let out a remark that a prospect
obviously had felt was presumptive!

Let's conclude by reviewing the exhibit you saw when you opened this web page.  It's a schematic that
draws attention to the problematic nature of the eruption of unresolved shame, and it points to the
well-established phenomenon of automatic behaviour traits being formed in the sometimes primitive
reactions by which we've survived traumas in the past.  From an energy perspective, subconscious
neurological energies bound up in the reactions by which we survive traumas rigidify our personalities
with 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 be a factor successful people will sometimes have to
acknowledge as limiting the efficacy of our efforts as a species to resolve social conflicts.  Leading
protagonists are likely to be insensitive to the smaller issues of big decision-making, and following
agents are likely to fail to think rationally about the implications for big decision-making of multiple
instances of small-minded behaviour.  We can see this clearly in the traditional fault lines of conflict
between 'left' and 'right' ideologies.  Today additional fault lines are deepening between the approaches
of 'Eastern' and 'Western' civilizations to democracy and authority, between the feelings of 'North' and
'South' economies about how to manage climate change, and between winners and losers from
processes of globalization.

So, can we solve the growing list of vexing problems so many of us, in this first quarter of the 21st
Century, fear are becoming impossible to solve?  My view is skeptically optimistic: we can, but only if
many more of us become consciously aware of the remorse process of emotional intelligence by which
(a) recognize and acknowledge when bravado, hypocrisy, and pedantry -- among other distancing
behaviour flaws -- are trapped, albeit accidentally by unresolved shame, in our personalities and
blocking problem-solving communication, and
(b) allow ourselves to experience enough moments of
the frightening state of being known as shame for that state to evolve into actionable remorse, out of
which, with faith and effort, we can grow our capacities for truly fair, and hopefully also expeditious,
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In October, in a letter published in the Corriere della Sera newspaper in Italy, an
engineer who works for Volkswagen offered her view of the work atmosphere. She
did not know how the deception had happened, she wrote, and doubted her bosses

She described a hard-charging culture in which highly educated and motivated
engineers competed for approval and promotion. The engineer, Emanuela
Montefrancesco, said: “Here at Volkswagen in the last few years, we have forgotten
to say, ‘I won’t do this. I cannot. I am sorry.’ ”