We have much to learn still about guilt and shame, and the roles these emotions can play in shaping behavior.
For much of the past twenty-five years or so, the bulk of behavioral science research has suggested that guilt, in the right doses and of the proper type, is an okay emotion to experience, because it’s strictly related to one’s behavior, but shame is a bad thing no matter what, because it’s so intimately connected to one’s sense of self-worth. Accordingly, parents and other authority figures have been urged to show disapproval only for a child’s behavior, never of the child. But it’s always been my experience that guilt has never been quite the emotional instrument that shame can be when it comes to making meaningful commitments to behaving in a more pro-social manner. And in just the last few years, some research has begun to emerge lending some support to this notion.
There’s little doubt that shame can sometimes assume toxic levels and do serious damage to a person’s self-esteem. But over the years working with character-impaired individuals, I found it equally damaging for a person to continue to hold themselves in unwarranted high esteem even when their habitual behavior patterns are abusive, exploitative, and destructive. And to a person, those folks whom I witnessed making genuine, positive, and lasting changes in their lives did so not primarily out of guilt over the things they had done (guilt was indeed a factor but it had never provided sufficient motivation for them to mend their ways), but rather because they could no longer live with the kind of person they’d allowed themselves to become (see also other articles I’ve written on this subject: “Shame, Guilt and Character Development”, “Shameless and Guiltless Thinking in Character Disturbance”, and “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: Do They Really Have No Shame?”). In the end, it was shame, not guilt that led these folks to a better place in life, so it seemed reasonable to assume that shame is not inherently bad.
A little-cited study by de Hooge, et al, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol 95(4), Oct 2008), found that shame related to social decision-making served as a positive motivator for maintaining a commitment to pro-social behavior. And a 2009 study, conducted at the University of Alberta by Jessica Van Vliet and published in Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, suggested that shame not only “has value” but also is “essential” to preserving the fabric of society, as well as the integrity of relationships. In the opinion of the authors, shame becomes problematic and even “paralyzing” only when it reaches extreme levels. Still, even toxic shame can be overcome, and how someone might do so was a principle focus of the study. And while the Van Vliet study has been harshly criticized by some, both for its questionable methodology and its under-supported conclusions, it does seem that a shift of sorts might be underway with respect to how the professional community views shame.
It will be very interesting to see what new directions might possibly be taken in the research on shame. I for one will be very interested to see whether some sound data emerge that help explain what makes some shame so damaging to self-image and debilitating, as opposed to “positively motivating” for pro-social behavior. I fully expect that eventually, information will emerge that argues more convincingly against the currently prevailing belief that all shame is bad. I’ve witnessed too many things and heard too many stories to believe otherwise. One, in particular, sticks with me. And because I’ve always had permission to share it and because I’ve also taken great pains to alter aspects of it to ensure complete anonymity, I’d like to share it once more. It’s the story of a man who was physically and emotionally abusive to his relationship partners, and whom I had encountered following one of his stints in treatment. Here’s part of his story, in his own words:
Guilty? Hell, doc, I always felt guilty. I felt bad after every time I slapped her, or spit on her, or called her a bitch and a slut. And I’d apologize, too. But I’d do it again. I knew my behavior was wrong and I felt bad about it. But that didn’t stop me. My behavior wasn’t the only problem. In fact, I had lots of problem behaviors. But the real problem was me! I probably really needed to take a good long look in the mirror, but I wasn’t ready to do that for a long time. I hadn’t done it the first time I was in treatment, either.
Yeah, I learned all those things and passed all the tests in those classes. And I said all the right things, too. But I was still the same guy. I had all those crazy opinions about myself and all those sorry attitudes. And I was a complete phony. Nothing really changed until that day I finally looked in the mirror and got honest. I didn’t like what I saw. I was an embarrassment to my family and to all those I’d managed to con all those years.
I needed to change a lot of things. So many things, in fact, that I couldn’t possibly change them all without changing who I was. I’m ashamed to admit it doc, but even when I was in treatment those two times before, and even though I said all the right things, I still thought I was better than everyone else, and I wasn’t about to change anything about myself. But the more honest I got, the more ugly the guy in the mirror became. And I’m not saying I’m perfect now, but for the first time in my life, I’m really working on being a better person. I’m ashamed of the man I was back then. But I’m feeling better about the person I’m getting to be.
Funny how certain things stick with you because of the impression they make. I’m not sure I could make the case for healthy shame any better than this one man’s testimony. And if this man’s life hadn’t really turned around, I wouldn’t give much weight to the testimony either. So I’ll be very interested to see if ongoing research leads to a shift in the prevailing perspective on shame. And because I’m convinced that for that perspective to be accurate and valid, it must change. I suspect it eventually will.