On guilt and shame

I fucked up and I do feel bad and I realize I should feel bad. Still, attaching “I wouldn’t have expected this from you of all people” every time something like this happens feels manipulative to me. Am I just seeing ghosts here?

You’re not seeing ghosts. This is just you having different reactions to guilt and shame.

Guilt is realizing you should feel bad and then feeling bad, which you seem to accept. You’re okay with feeling guilty and accepting guilt. Shame, on the other hand, is someone saying “I wouldn’t have expected this from you of all people.” You’re not okay with feeling shame and being shamed. (And yes, shame is a tool people can use to manipulate, which is why it feels manipulative to you.)

Feeling guilt means you have a conscience, and that’s a good thing. Recognizing that shame might be manipulation means you’ve got a bullshit detector, and that’s also a good thing.

You want to be a person fully capable of feeling guilty. Guilt is a necessary component for a strong moral compass. What you don’t want to be is a person who is too easily shamed. Personally, I consider shamelessness to be a virtue when it’s tempered with thoughtfulness and grace.


6 thoughts on “On guilt and shame

    • Dina N says:

      Please tell me you ask them if there’s been extenuating circumstances in their lives first…as a student who has been in that situation, it made me feel like my professor had no recognition of the fact that I’m not only an excellent student but also a human being with a life that was currently in crisis. I had a lot of trouble relating well to that person, and fortunately found other advisers who helped me move on in my career.

      It’s something I try to be really conscious of with my own students now.

    • GE says:

      I don’t have the same experience as a school teacher, but I have given university instruction. Sometimes breaking the rules should be treated like a camera traffic ticket. No excuses, no guilt-tripping, and a consequence that has been outlined in advance. It’s hard not to feel disappointed; the first time I caught a cheater I felt really bad about reporting and having them failed, but now I’ve personally had to witness and verify that several university students have cheated (in various ways) and I’m a little more calloused to it. But it’s harder when the student is someone you see daily and have to work with after this, not to be disappointed personally when they fuck up.

      Personally I think differentiating between guilt and shame is splitting hairs though.

  1. MN says:

    “Personally, I consider shamelessness to be a virtue when it’s tempered with thoughtfulness and grace.”

    I loved that. I’ve read before that you value shamelessness, and I’ve always agreed but I’ve also always cringed at the idea of someone who has absolutely no boundaries, whose shamelessness is a vortex of second-hand embarrassment and obnoxiousness.

    I’m trying to become a more shameless person and “thoughtfulness” and “grace” are two very good words to keep on the horizon.

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