Ask Mr. Emotions: Shame and Guilt

We live in a society that has made shame and guilt undesirable. From the perspective of not wanting to experience discomfort, that makes sense. We all want to live in as much comfort and ease as possible. However, from a neurological, psychological, physiological, and sociological perspective, avoiding shame and guilt is a very dangerous premise.

Shame and guilt are important for their adaptive function, which is just a fancy way of saying “respond to what’s going on around you.” In simpler words, they tell you how to adapt (to the environment), which means that trying to ignore them is to ignore the messages being sent – from people, events, nature, etc.

All emotions have an adaptive function and as such, we should be paying close attention to them. The trouble is that our world is increasingly sending messages through news media, social media, marketing, and Hollywood that are trying either to mislabel what we are feeling or telling us not to feel. In my Noggin Notes Podcast (which I do for Zephyr Wellness) I spend many an episode educating listeners on the value of emotions and what to do when they are triggered in our brains. Shame and guilt are covered in two parts, found here and here, and if you are interested, you can listen. Or just keep reading as I cover the same in this article.

I reference shame and guilt together because neurologically speaking, they are very closely related. The adaptive function of shame is to tell you that you failed to meet someone’s expectations, or that you caused someone else to feel sadness. Guilt tells you to go correct that which you did wrong in order to cause the sadness. In other words, if you let someone down and you notice it, that is shame. The feeling right behind that, telling you to make a repair, is guilt.

Others in my profession will say that shame is feeling bad about yourself and guilt is feeling bad about what you did. That is a reasonable metaphor and it certainly motivates people who are stuck in shame to get out of it, but neurologically speaking, it is incorrect. And as the 44th President of the United States once said, “Words matter.”

Shame is not a bad thing

That they do, because incorrectly labeling our bodily functions – of which emotions are one – can have disastrous impacts. Shame is not a bad thing. Quite contrarily, it is a very, very good thing.

In fact, it is necessary to survival and to call it something else is dangerous. “But Jake,” you may say, “Brené Brown says that shame is neither helpful nor productive!” Brené Brown is an outstanding therapist and has helped millions of people with her work, her books, her teaching, and her research.

However, here she is focused on one kind of shame, something that Christian Conte calls “shame backward.” It is a poisonous, unhealthy kind of shame where some people dwell in misery. I am not discounting Brené Brown’s work. For people who are stuck in shame, her books are incredibly powerful. Shame forward, as researched by Carroll Izard (along with the other nine discrete emotions that he studied for 50 years) is what I am referring to in this article. Shame forward is useful. Shame forward gets us to apologize. It triggers appropriate guilt that helps maintain our social connections and helps us stay healthy.

Recent anthropological theories suggest that the reason homo sapiens survived and other hominids, such as neanderthals, became extinct, is because our species has a larger portion of the brain devoted to social structuring. This allowed our ancestors to hang together in tribes to ward off beasts, survive the elements, and eventually evolve. What is needed for this type of connectivity?

That is where Izard’s work surfaces. In his book, The Psychology of Emotions, Izard suggests that shame is useful in keeping people together because of its evolutionary significance. Say, for instance, if I do something that violates the order of the tribe (shame) and upsets everyone (others are sad), should I want to remain in good standing with the tribe I will fix it (guilt). If this happens 40,000 years ago and I fail to fix my error, I run the risk of getting booted from the tribe. If I get booted, I die, because I need the tribe and all its resources in order to survive.

How shame and guilt apply to parenting

So, historically and neurologically, the function of the shame-guilt relationship is to keep us alive. And yet today we live in a society where none of us is allowed to “feel bad” by being held accountable for our misdeeds. “Don’t tell Johnny that he has to clean up his spilled juice, you might make him ashamed of himself.”

Yes. He should be ashamed. But not of himself as a human being, rather he should be ashamed of his actions. He let people down by spilling the juice. This is a natural part of life: make mistakes, then make repairs, then get forgiven. Because if Johnny wants to maintain his membership in broader society (i.e., his tribe), he needs to learn what is expected of him. But these days we have children not being held accountable because we “don’t want hurt feelings” and so in turn, they get to firebomb each other (causing sadness) anonymously on social media, with no accountability, no repairs made for the pain they have inflicted.

Kids are literally dying from the effects of being teased online. They take their own lives because the bullies are not held accountable because shame and guilt are somehow considered unacceptable forms of intervention. “Don’t tell Susie she’s wrong because she will get upset,” or “Go easy on him, he’s just a boy,” or “Kids will be kids” have all replaced strict consequences for undesirable behaviors. Instead of teaching children not to offend others, we have actually protected them from feeling shame for doing so. And, in turn, we fail to educate the recipients of the sadness that sadness can be tolerated and life is sometimes unfair. The message of “life should always be pain-free” affects both the sufferer and the person who inflicted the suffering, both negatively.

And you know what the really wacky thing is? Because of technological advances in things like grocery shopping, we don’t actually have to interact with the public anymore at all if we don’t want to. Antifa wears masks and harms people with no penalty; little Timmy blasts his enemies on Twitter without identifying himself. Pain is created but accountability (shame/guilt) is absent.

Pain continues. Over and over and over again. Yet apologies, reconciliation, and repairs do not appear. And it will get worse if we as parents fail to take charge. No one likes pain, but pain is necessary for growth. Shielding our children from the neurologically necessary shame/guilt process will harm them down the road. They will fail to integrate with community, their relationships will become disposable, and they will lack intimacy and compassion. Do not ignore shame. Use it appropriately (don’t shame backwards!) and make sure to educate along the way. That is real discipline. That is real parenting.

Parents, I implore you not to spare your children’s sadness, wailing, and protestations when you hold them accountable. Of course this means you need to understand and tolerate your emotions in order to ride through that turbulence. But for the sake of their own personal development (and for those they touch across society), it must be done.

Let us all become more knowledgeable about our brains and the messages that they send us so that we do not also wind up isolated, thinking that we don’t need each other. We already have evidence that tactic does not work – in the form of the neanderthals.

Bonus: A low-quality (but informational) video on how to handle harmful apps with your children and the dangers of technology.

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