Guilt and Shame

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Guilt and shame are unpleasant feelings a person has in association with something that they think they have done wrong, or that they fear they will face social disapproval for. There is no universally agreed upon precise definition of guilt and shame, and the two words are often used interchangeably, and their meaning overlaps greatly.

Making people feel guilty

One of our practices is to not try to make people feel guilt or shame. This is not to say that we necessarily think it is unhealthy if we act in such a way that causes other people to feel guilt or shame, but rather, that it is not healthy to set out with the primary intention of evoking these feelings in another person.

Our way of handling or responding to harmful actions

In Why This Way, we take an approach to preventing harmful actions that focuses on encouraging people to take responsibility for their actions, and on helping people to understand the ways in which their actions affect others.

Some people may feel bad, experience feelings of guilt or shame, when they realize how their actions have harmed others or impacted them negatively. However, other people may not feel these feelings at all or to the same degree. In both of these cases, it is problematic if people keep acting in harmful ways, regardless of whether or not they feel bad.

In either case, we believe that it is not the feelings that matter, but rather, the person's actions going forward. Our beliefs state that when in a healthy state, people act on their emotions in empowering and constructive ways.

Some people can get caught in a cycle of guilt or shame, in which they act in ways harmful to themselves or others, and then feel guilty about how they have acted, but stay in a persistent state of feeling bad which contributes to them continuing to act in harmful ways. A cycle of guilt would be an example of an unhealthy state of being, in which a person's emotions are flowing into harmful actions.

Some participants in Why This Way have found it empowering to accept that guilt or shame may come with the realization of harming or impacting others negatively and, rather than dwelling on the guilt or bad feeling that may accompany that realization, move forward by asking themselves what they could have done differently.

Guilt, shame, and the rules of communication

Our views on guilt and shame also relate to our rules of communication. One of our rules is to not place blame on other people. Although this rule has many purposes, one of them is to avoid a situation in which people are made to feel bad for mistakes they have made, and to instead keep our dialogue focused on helping people to understand how their actions affect others, and discussing constructive courses of action to move forward after a mistake.

Shame and abuse

Shame can be used as a way of manipulating and controlling people, especially in the case of sexual abuse. For example, someone sexually abusing another person can use shame in an attempt to keep the person being abused from speaking up about what is going on.

Because of this potential way in which shame can be used to manipulate or control people, we are very cautious about acting in ways that could instill patterns of shame in children, because it could possibly make them more vulnerable to abuse and less likely to speak up if they are abused.

Guilt and fundraising

Guilt can sometimes be used as a tactic in fundraising. This technique can involve using emotionally-charged imagery, such as puppies or children, and stating or implying that something bad will happen unless you give money to a particular organization. These techniques can distort the truth, as they typically do not present a full picture of the organization's use of money and financial history, and they can be used by organizations that may be using money inefficiently or may be in financial trouble due in part to past mismanagement. They also do not tend to critically evaluate the effectiveness of the organization at actually addressing the problem that they supposedly seek to address, and they do not address the ways in which there may be other ways of addressing the problem without donating money to the particular organization. They also do not address the fact that there is a potentially endless array of problems in society and in the world that people can focus on, and that it is necessary for each person to prioritize which problems they wish to focus on.