Am I a Bad Person?: Examining the Importance of Knowing the Difference Between Guilt and Shame

I once asked someone I knew what was likelier, that she happened to have possessed the most undesirable qualities or that she categorized all of them as undesirable. In that moment, she realized that most of her self-loathing stemmed from preferences; she simply hated her qualities because she had them. Shame is a generalized self-disdain, a deep sense of yourself as being unlovable, unworthy, and awful; it’s founded on an all perverse sense of who you are.

In practice, shame is often used to whip oneself into shape, attempting to create a brand new self out of the debris of the old one, as though one can ever somehow become the complete opposite of who they are. The person mentioned above was parented by a harsh and overly critical mother who consistently found something wrong with her, something that disqualified the positives of her actions. So, when she was financially responsible (for the most part), her mom would focus on the areas where she spent “too much” money, stripping her of the title of ‘financially responsible’. Fundamentally, this individual came to believe that each of her imperfect, or even apparently imperfect, parts symbolized her global ineptitude.

When you aren’t granted credit for your positive achievements, and instead informed of your shortcomings, it’s easy to become perfectionistic. And we do this to ourselves as much as we do it to our kids. In session, I try to help my clients distinguish the difference between shame, a feeling based on a negative global self-abasement, and guilt, the feeling of remorse for having committed an egregious act. If you grasp onto the first way of treating yourself, even if you’re on a roll of consecutive achievements, eventually you’ll falter and, subsequently, feel devastated, making it unlikely that you’ll have enough energy and motivation to learn and grow from failure. (You’re more likely to use it as evidence of your inferiority.) But, if you were to feel guilty instead, conceiving of the action in isolation, you would question yourself on your motivations and its outcomes. For, it’s easier, and less heartbreaking, to have to change a behavior than it is a personality.

We should feel guilty about some of our actions, as they, undoubtedly, fall within the scope of immorality. And, as people, we’ll make our share of poor decisions. But, if our goal entails being globally good, as opposed to globally bad, we paint ourselves into an inescapable corner, at least we do so in the long run. “This is just who I am” is a comment frequently heard in therapists’ offices. Because of the way our brains operate, in their attempts to categorize everything, it takes mental effort to begin to conceive of ourselves, and our moral characters, in the long term, in states of constant flux.

Additionally, since our brains are often trapped in black and white thinking, it’s easy for us to categorize all dichotomous traits (e.g. introversion vs. extroversion, sensitivity vs. aloofness, creativity vs. logic) as being either good or bad. In an honest reckoning of them, each quality just indicates one way of being, composed of both good and bad consequences. If I’m an introvert, I won’t have many friends, but I’ll have a reasonable amount of personal achievements and a higher than average skill-set in one or more domains. If I’m aloof, I won’t get hurt as much as my reactive counterpart does, but I also won’t feel as much affection. Unfortunately, it’s natural to think of one as better than the other. So, the acceptance of diversity in character, like long term moral growth, requires an observing ego, the ability to step outside of oneself and see the bigger picture.

When examining an action, it’s beneficial to ask yourself: is this a matter of ethics or of preference? If the latter, then why can’t one prefer and choose to be more of an introvert? And why should anyone else care? Unfortunately, our society is structured in a way that makes self-debasement highly likely, as, on the whole, we view personal differences and preferences through the lens of seemingly objective judgments. Our cultures and resultant internal voices form barriers to self-acceptance, causing us to question why we simply can’t be different.

So, as often as someone enters treatment to become a better person, one enters it to change their preferences; they want to want to be more something. My question is always, why? Why do you have to want to be an extrovert when you prefer more time in isolation? Why do you have to be uncaring when life’s main purpose is to love? Why should I feel ashamed, or even guilty, for making choices that make me happy? The internal conflict entails the desires to be different and to remain the same.

Healthy authenticity consistently takes others’ perspectives into account, but always favors the choices that feel right. It’s an ideal of course, but one that can be incrementally exhibited. Imagine, if you will, spending the rest of your life feeling guilt about your wicked deeds and add to it the shame of your benign choices. For each of us, the work to be done is figuring out what to throw away and what to keep, who we aren’t and who we are.

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