Toxic shame versus pro-social guilt: One paralyses us, the other motivates us to be better human beings

Guilt causes us to reflect on what we did wrong, and what we can do differently next time, But, shame leads us down the path of asking what’s wrong with us.

Myupchar August 22, 2019 14:10:52 IST
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Toxic shame versus pro-social guilt: One paralyses us, the other motivates us to be better human beings
  • Experts suggest that guilt causes us to reflect on what we did wrong, and what we can do differently next time

  • Shame leads us down the path of asking what’s wrong with us - till we feel awful about ourselves and want to cut ourselves off from others

  • Research has now established toxic shame as one of the most common causes of suicide

Shame and guilt are often used interchangeably to describe a self-conscious emotion triggered by a failure or shortcoming, when in fact there is a subtle and important difference between the two.

Experts suggest that guilt causes us to reflect on what we did wrong, and what we can do differently next time. In other words, it promotes social behaviour. Shame, on the other hand, leads us down the path of asking what’s wrong with us - till we feel awful about ourselves and want to cut ourselves off from others.

Toxic shame versus prosocial guilt One paralyses us the other motivates us to be better human beings

Representational image. AFP.

Maria Miceli, a researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technology, Italy, made this difference crystal clear in her article 'Reconsidering the differences between shame and guilt' - it was published in the August 2018 edition of Europe’s Journal of Psychology.

Miceli wrote that we feel guilt when we let other people down. Shame, on the other hand, is more personal - and the person feeling shame may start to dislike a part of themselves, or their physical appearance, habits, emotions or behaviour.

Research has now established toxic shame as one of the most common causes of suicide.

Toxic shame

Renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung once said: “Shame is a soul-eating emotion.”

Society has long used shaming as a way of social conditioning. (Think of all the times someone said to you “what will your teacher think or say,” when you were still at school.) In the quest to be perfect, however, we have neglected the psychological cost of shame.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the shame we feel is ingrained in our minds in our childhood.

In 2015, researchers Jeffery Stuewig, et al., broke this down in 'Children’s Proneness to shame and guilt predict risky and illegal behaviour in young adulthood', an article published in Child Psychiatry & Human Development.

Stuewig and his fellow researchers wrote that “it is almost unanimously believed that shame and guilt help correct the moral compass in humans and help children develop into responsible and social citizens.” A child who is constantly shamed may feel unworthy and powerless even after they grow up. Alternatively, the constant scolding may make them feel wicked. Either way, this has a negative effect - they end up hating themselves or behave in risky and aggressive ways that could hurt them as they grow up. Such children find it hard to accept positive remarks and are likely to beat themselves up throughout their lives for not being accomplished enough, no matter how much they achieve.

In adults, the inability to come up to the social or financial status of their peers can induce feelings of shame. A recent study found that individuals suffering from rheumatoid arthritis can also feel shame and guilt due to their disability.

Truth about shame

The Indian government is now promoting mental health in a big way, by supporting 23 centres of excellence around the country. In urban drawing rooms, conversations around seeing a psychiatrist or meeting with a psychologist raise fewer eyebrows. A trained professional can help someone with prolonged effects of shame in a variety of ways - including medication.

Besides seeking the help they need, there are also other things that people riddled with shame can do: they can start by giving themselves credit. They’ve got this far in life because they are worthy and hardworking. They should own it.

Next, they need to 'cultivate forgiveness' for themselves. Look at themselves from another person’s point of view - it can really put things in perspective.

In his book Letting Go of Shame, Dr Ronald Potter-Effron, a clinical psychotherapist, shared many self-help tips. There’s a wonderful progression to them: Don’t believe all your thoughts, he advised. Instead, take them as what they are - thoughts in your head, and then observe them for their accuracy.

For some people, it can be the hardest thing in the world to forgive themselves. You know who those people are in your life; maybe show them a little extra love, and be gentler with them.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. To read about suicide, please visit https://www.myupchar.com/en/disease/suicidal-tendency

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