What We Do Matters But Who We Are Matters Too

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Personality traits and styles which used to be known as “disordered” have more recently shown some adaptive value. But that doesn’t change the importance of underlying character: it still matters whether we really care or whether we’re just trying to win.

Shame and guilt are two of the major feeling states we call social emotions. We call them social emotions because cultural norms and mores influence our experience of them. Both shame and guilt can have a profound influence over our behavior. The more well-developed our conscience is, the greater our capacity is to experience either shame or guilt. But as social emotions go, shame and guilt are quite different from one another. Guilt is more related to the things we do, whereas shame is more about the person we are. We feel guilty when we’ve done something we know most folks regard as wrong, whereas we feel ashamed when our patterns of conduct “expose” us as persons of lesser character than we either profess ourselves to be or aspire to be.

For many years, behavioral science researchers told us that shame is simply a bad thing because of the negative impact it can have on our sense of self-worth. It’s long been assumed that feeling any sense of shame always damages a person’s self-esteem. But some recent research has begun to question this assumption, and my years of experience as a therapist have also taught me to question this notion. Sure, it matters what we do. But who we are matters, too. If there’s one thing my clients have taught me over the years it’s that character really does matter, and it matters more than we have tended to think in recent years. (That’s one of the reasons I chose to title my weekly internet radio program Character Matters.) Many of my clients have struggled with significant disturbances of personality and character. Their lives were a shipwreck not so much because of the few “out of character” mistakes they made but rather because of the habitual ways they tended to see things and to relate to others. That’s what defines a person’s character. So to be better and to live better they had to go beyond merely changing some of the things they typically did and tackle the hard work of re-defining the person they wanted to be.

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I consider myself very fortunate indeed to have witnessed hundreds of individuals significantly succeed in turning their lives around. But to a person, none did that strictly out of a sense of guilt. In fact, I know all too many who felt badly about what they had done every single time they injured another; unfortunately, that didn’t stop them from engaging in the hurtful behavior again. What really seemed to change things was a growing discontent with the person they saw whenever they took that proverbial look in the mirror. It’s when they could no longer live with the kind of person they’d allowed themselves to become that things really began to change. They didn’t want to just do better but to be better. They too had come to the inescapable conclusion that character truly matters.

In the US, we’ve just concluded one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent history. During the long, brutal, and often disgusting campaign, never was character and its relevance more clearly on display. Moreover, for the first time in recent memory, it appeared as if character would play the pivotal role in the choice the electorate would make. Many regarded both candidates as significantly flawed in character, and it was widely assumed that the choice would come down to the “lesser of two evils.” And while many were outraged with some of their antics, what appeared to unnerve folks even more about the candidates was the shamelessness with which they engaged in many of those antics. In the end, however, the electorate spoke most loudly about their feelings of disenfranchisement, of being too long ignored and too long disrespected. So, they voted for the promise of change from the status quo. In the process, they appeared to me to set aside their rightful concerns about character.

Time will tell how much character will ultimately make the difference in the country’s welfare over the next four years. In our times, many character styles that we once defined as “disorders” have demonstrated some adaptive value. It’s entirely possible for a person concerned with nothing but their image to do whatever they have to do not only to “win” but also to be seen as the adulation-worthy person they purport themselves to be. For many sociocultural reasons, narcissism has become much less deviant and much more adaptive. Still, I’m very nervous. I’ve come to learn the importance of character, and I know how crucial it is to really care as opposed to just being determined to win and to look good. So I’ll maintain some guarded hope that in the end, the greater good will triumph — and I’ll pray that underneath all their brazen pomposity, our leaders know full when that in the end, character is what really counts.

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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