Guilt and Shame: Are They Useful?

Guilt is a useless emotion.

— Jiddu Krishnamurti

Some years ago, a few of us were sitting around the coffee shop pretending to have a conversation about passing dogs.  You know, one of those days when no one seems able to think of something better to talk about:

“There’s a dog!”

“I see.  Quite a dog!”

“It looks happy…”

“Quite happy.”

“A Labrador.”

“Or a mix.”

“Wow! That babe coming down the sidewalk. She’s gorgeous! Flat out gorgeous!”

“True, but she’s not a dog.”

Things went on like that for about three-quarters of an hour before someone said, “I’m ashamed to be wasting time talking about dogs.”  Half of us nodded and mumbled, “yeah”, so I decided then and there to destroy the conversation, for in chaos is renewal.  “Shame is a useless emotion, ” I pronounced, “Same as guilt.”

Everyone fell silent and looked at me.  So, I put on a distracted look — as if I had totally forgotten the matter and was now fascinated by the sparrows flitting by.  I wanted to know if anyone was interested to pursue it.  In a moment, I had my answer: “You can’t just say something like that and not explain yourself.  What do you mean?”

The resulting conversation was a lively free for all in which some of us spoke at once, and all but one or two of us had an opinion.  But I don’t suppose any of us were really thinking about it — we were just tossing out our convictions and preconceptions.  Still, I managed to take away from that conversation the lesson that some of us place a lot of faith in guilt and shame.

We think shame and guilt — especially guilt — are reliable guides to whether or not we have done wrong.  As one person put it, “Guilt is my moral compass.”  And someone else said, “People who don’t feel guilt are psychopaths, and psychopaths can’t tell right from wrong.”

I think my friend apparently thought a failure to feel guilt made you a psychopath.  But psychopaths have other characteristics besides a failure to feel guilt.  For instance, they do not feel empathy, and they tend to blame others for their harmful behavior, among other things.  That is, anyone who does not feel guilt is not by that fact alone made a psychopath.

Now, people sometimes distinguish between shame and guilt.  Accordingly, we feel shame when:

  • Someone accuses us of violating a moral standard.
  • We believe we bear significant responsibility for the violation.
  • We believe they are within their rights or otherwise justified to accuse us.

Guilt is very similar, but does not rely on someone else accusing us.  In effect, we accuse ourselves.  Thus, we feel guilt when:

  • We believe that we have violated a moral standard.
  •  We believe we are significantly responsible for the violation.

To date, I have only heard one reason given for why shame and guilt are useful emotions.  Namely, that they are reliable guides to what is right or wrong.  I have several problems with that notion, but I will only bring up two of them.

First, I think all morality is ultimately arbitrary.  It’s true that I might posit an overriding principle or value — such as human well-being — and then logically derive from that principle or value a coherent set of morals, but that does not negate the fact my coherent set of morals is ultimately grounded in an arbitrary decision that one principle or value shall override the others.  Yet, if that is indeed the case — if all morality is ultimately arbitrary — then the moral standards I might feel shame or guilt for violating are ultimately arbitrary.  Thus, I cannot rely on my feelings of shame or guilt to reveal values that are ultimately any more objective than any other values.

Second, I was reminded of that coffee shop conversation today when I read D’Ma’s post, “Every Time I Fail“,  over on her blog, Gullible’s Travels.  In her post, D’Ma talks about the Christian notion of guilt she was raised with, and how difficult it has been for her to escape feelings of religious guilt, despite her rejection of Christianity:

Even doubting as I do, even having relinquished inerrancy and even divine inspiration, even realizing that belief in the God of the Bible is probably nothing more than believing in the Tooth Fairy, when I see these images and hear the words to songs like Feel the Nails the guilt and shame wash over me anew and I have to remind myself that I don’t crucify Jesus every time I fail.

I recall friends who, somewhat like D’Ma, became non-theists only to now and then still feel guilt for sinning against the Christian God.  Shame and guilt are frequently of the past.  They are often outdated.  We change.  We grow.  But all too often, our shame and guilt do not.

For those two and other reasons, I do not believe shame and guilt are useful emotions.  People have told me they are reliable guides to right or wrong.  But it seems to me they are — at the very best — no more reliable than anything else, for it seems to me all values are ultimately based on arbitrary decisions.  Moreover, they can be out of whack with our more mature values.  That is, we can feel shame or guilt for violating moral standards we no longer hold.  In either case, they seem to me useless emotions.

Yet, what do you think?  Are shame and guilt useful?  And if so, how?

14 thoughts on “Guilt and Shame: Are They Useful?

  1. I think guilt has its place in morality, but only in your own head. By that I mean, guilt becomes harmful when people attempt to manipulate others with guilt and shame. To me, shame and guilt refer to an exaggerated feeling, something that is not productive. I prefer to refer to the healthy version as remorse, when you think “I wish I hadn’t done that, it was wrong, and I should probably make amends/restitution.” Guilt and shame (especially shame) focus more on the worth of the person who committed the infraction, as if doing something wrong affects your value as a person.

    Shaming as a form of discipline (in children) has been shown to have detrimental effects on the child’s mental health and behavioral patterns. For example, the use of time-outs to shame a child (you can use time-outs in a non-shaming way too though) for doing something wrong has been shown to cause psychological damage, and also to be an ineffective means of teaching right from wrong/preventing bad behavior.

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    • Guilt and shame (especially shame) focus more on the worth of the person who committed the infraction, as if doing something wrong affects your value as a person.

      That’s a very powerful statement and when I read it clicked with something inside me. That is exactly the way I was feeling when I wrote that piece on my blog. I have my reasons for feeling that twinge of self -doubt and it’s getting better, but every now and then something triggers it and I have to talk myself out of it.

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  2. Oh hell!!! My mother has used guilt for decades to the point where my brother and I refuse to have anything to do with her — neither of us has ever been perfect enough because we both are a lot like our dad. I bear the scars of it and have come to terms with them and I not very politely tell those who think I need to make peace with her to go to hell. There’s no place for her irrational bitterness and hatred in my life. I do feel sorry for her but there’s place for her anger and guilt in my life and my shrink agrees.

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  3. What a very thought provoking post! I think guilt and shame are commonly used in our society as controlling mechanisms. They are used to enforce conformity. I’m thinking that whatever value they may have is personal and should come from within. They can be reminders that we are out of sync with our personal standards. For that reason I detest it when someone else attempts to lay a guilt trip on me.

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    • Thank you for your kind words, Doug!

      I certainly agree with you that guilt is used to manipulate people. Some years ago, I read a book on how to write direct mail pieces — also known as junk mail. The book was written by one of the top writers in the industry. His letters were money in the bank to direct marketers. In his book, he taught to ignore all other human emotions and — for the best return — focus on just four to manipulate your audience into doing what you wanted. One of those four was guilt.

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  4. Hehe…I made you stay up late, did I? At least I wasn’t the only one burning the midnight oil. I was trying my hand at building that website until the wee hours of the morning. 🙂

    Now, people sometimes distinguish between shame and guilt. Accordingly, we feel shame when:

    Someone accuses us of violating a moral standard.
    We believe we bear significant responsibility for the violation.
    We believe they are within their rights or otherwise justified to accuse us.

    Guilt is very similar, but does not rely on someone else accusing us. In effect, we accuse ourselves. Thus, we feel guilt when:

    We believe that we have violated a moral standard.
    We believe we are significantly responsible for the violation.

    Thank you for writing this piece. As I said earlier, I have my reasons for guilt and shame creeping in. It’s much better than it used to be and I look forward to the day when I don’t feel it at all, but instead, remorse for actual wrongdoings. I have, in the past, been quite easily guilt tripped. I had never separated guilt and shame as emotions and I had certainly never thought of them as useless. In my hardcore Christian days I thought that was the Holy Spirit “convicting” me. I guess old habits die hard.

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    • I’m not sure I even buy remorse as actually necessary. I think empathy suffices to motivate us to do our best by people and correct our mistakes. But perhaps I’m wrong about that.

      Good luck with the website!

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  5. Shame and guilt are absolutely useful, especially in manipulating people (if you’re into that kind of thing).

    Your post is coincidentally timed. Last night, my wife said, “Sometimes, I wish I could be more like you,” and went on to say she was, at times, envious of my life without guilt or shame. After reading your post, I think that she said “sometimes” because she believes that they are tied closed to her empathy.

    As far as morality goes, it is far better to objectively and logically choose your code of conduct, fine tuning it as life teaches you new lessons. I will warn you that when you do this, people will try to use guilt and shame to bring you back into line. When you consciously choose your code of conduct:

    1. The code makes much more sense.
    2. There is “buy in” which increases the likelihood of following it

    You have to be able to ask “Why?” a lot though and as we’ve discussed before, not many people enjoy that game (except two-year olds and Success Warriors).

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    • I agree to an extent, but at the same time I still rely on empathy – something that isn’t entirely rational – to guide me too. Logic and reason are good, but life doesn’t always follow the rules. Emotion and intuition have their place too.

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      • As an aside, Macha, the Edge ran an article on intuition this month. I haven’t had time to read more than the abstract, but it looks good.

        In general, I see logic and reason — and often enough intuition — as the best means we have of creating accurate maps of the world to inform and guide us. Emotions, on the other hand, seem to me essential for prioritizing what to do and for doing it Just my two cents.

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    • Two points, Alan.

      First, I’ve seen again and again the truth of your statement that when you adopt new values, people will try to use guilt and shame to bring you back into line. That is so spot on.

      Second, I think it is mistaken to conflate guilt and shame with empathy. It seems I have at times felt guilt and shame without the least feelings of empathy for the person I wronged.

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