Guilt and Shame

The twin emotions of guilt and shame seem to be singularly unprofitable. From a Darwinian perspective, what purpose could they serve? But rare is the individual who can claim to be free of them.

I have read that eastern cultures are more shame oriented (“What will people say?”) and western cultures are more guilt oriented (“I am a filthy sinner”). I personally agree with this assessment. An unfortunate consequence of my having grown up in one, and having chosen to live in the other, is that I feel both in equal measure.

Credit: psychology

Credit: psychology

Guilt looks inward — it is what you feel when you do something that lowers your self-opinion. It is, for example, what I feel when I miss days of writing early in a 90-day personal writing challenge.



Shame, on the other hand, looks outward — it is what you feel when you cause others to think less of you. It is what I feel attempting to explain to the world why I would fritter away my time on writing challenges when I have a perfectly good, stable, secure job to focus on — one that has nothing to do with writing.

I understand the biological imperatives behind these emotions. If the best chance of survival of the species is for self-centered individuals to bind into communities, guilt and shame are a part of the glue that holds us together. But from the self-centered individual’s points of view, “Get thee behind me now, Satan!”

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