Shame, Guilt and Character Development

Neurotics are too quick to feel ashamed when they’ve fallen short and too guilty when they think they’ve done wrong. In contrast, disordered characters are disturbingly lacking in their capacity to experience even healthy levels of shame or guilt.

I’ve posted on how neurotics differ from disordered characters on dimensions such as their levels of awareness (“Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Levels of Awareness”), needs in therapy (“Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Contrasting Needs in Therapy”), and use of defense mechanisms such as denial (“Understanding Denial as a Defense Mechanism”). But there is perhaps no greater difference between these two groups of individuals as there is with respect to issues related to shame and guilt.

Because they are persons of conscience, neurotics experience high, often excessive, and sometimes toxic levels of shame and guilt. Shame is the emotional state we experience when we feel badly about who we are and guilt is the condition we experience when feel badly about what we’ve done. Judging themselves as harshly as they tend to do, neurotics are quick to feel ashamed of themselves when they fail to measure up to the high standards they set for themselves. They’re also quick to feel guilty when they think they’ve done something hurtful, or harmful. Some neurotics experienced levels of shame and guilt growing up that were so toxic that it led them to develop truly pathological symptoms of their neurosis. But most neurotics don’t carry with them extreme levels of guilt or shame. Nonetheless, they are hypersensitive to these feelings and are quick to feel badly about themselves when they’ve done something that reflects negatively on their character and too quick to beat themselves up emotionally when they think they’ve committed social sins.

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When he does something harmful, the disturbed character lacks the pangs of guilt or shame that emanate from a well-developed conscience. Shamelessness and guiltlessness are the disturbed character’s most hallmark features. Disordered characters don’t feel badly enough about themselves when they fail to measure up to reasonable expectations, and they don’t feel guilty enough when they do things hurtful or harmful to others. They actually appear to lack sufficient capacity to experience the guilt or shame necessary to keep most of us behaving in a pro-social manner.

The plethora of books dealing with shame and guilt that dominated the self-help and “recovery” market of the 60s, 70s, and even 80s, was largely written by, for, and about neurotics. Shame and blame were the names of their game, and most of those books blamed toxic levels of guilt and/or shame for a wide variety of psychological problems that damaged a person’s self-esteem. These books largely made us believe that there was no such thing as good shame or healthy guilt. Some authors and theorists later relented on the topic of guilt, acknowledging that at least some measure of guilt is necessary to keep us civilized. But even today, the dominant opinion about shame, even among more empirically-based researchers and theorists, is that it’s a bad thing, period. The general consensus seems to be that while it’s a relatively good thing to feel badly about something you’ve done that’s harmful, feeling badly about oneself — about who one literally is — is never a good thing. After working for many years with disturbed characters, I came to see the short-sightedness of this premise some time ago. It is precisely because most of us might experience some genuine self-disgust with the kind of person we might find ourselves becoming when we habitually engage in the kinds of behaviors disordered characters display that prompts us to change our ways and restore a self-image we can live with. I’ve known many individuals who made significant changes in their characters not only because they regretted their irresponsible behaviors, but also because they became unsettled enough with the kind of person they had allowed themselves to become (i.e., became too ashamed of themselves) that they decided a character makeover was in order. In my opinion, the capacity to experience both shame and guilt is essential for sound character development. As is usually the case, however, it’s a matter of degree. When individuals experience toxic levels of either guilt or shame, especially when either is truly unwarranted, there can indeed be a negative impact on psychological health.

Some professionals (and non-professionals) take issue with the premises above. They insist that disordered characters actually do feel guilt and shame but that they effectively utilize — or perhaps over-utilize — certain “defense mechanisms” such as “denial” and “projection” to assuage the emotional pain associated with that guilt or pain. This is because they continue to accept the tenets of classical psychology (i.e., that everyone is neurotic to a greater or lesser degree) and because believing that all individuals are fundamentally similar makes it hard for them to imagine how anyone could behave in a manner that appears so shameless unless they were in fact defending themselves against real pain underneath it all. My work has taught me, however, that being embarrassed at being uncovered or found out is not the same as being ashamed of oneself. Shame is one of those mechanisms that makes a person think twice about doing something wrong in the first place. Moreover, a person who truly feels ashamed of himself is certainly not likely do the same shameful things over and over again. Character-disordered people will sometimes claim they didn’t come clean with themselves or others because they were ashamed. But this is often a lie they tell because they know a neurotic person is likely to find it plausible. Individuals overly invested in the classical explanations of human behavior might also tend to believe that those who commit criminal behaviors in a manner that is so careless, reckless, impulsive, and thoughtless, do so because they have a subconscious desire (arising out of pangs of conscience) to be caught. There has never been any empirical support for this notion, but that has not kept many from adhering to it. In fact, there is mounting evidence that some of the most seriously disturbed characters act the way they do because they experience few if any pangs of conscience. A very renowned researcher, Dr. Robert Hare, has aptly titled his very revealing book about the most seriously disturbed character — the psychopath — Without Conscience.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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