There have been a number of
attempts to define and distinguish the painful emotions of shame and
guilt. One of the most influential
distinctions is Helen Block Lewis's in Shame and Guilt in Neurosis (1971): "The experience of shame is directly
about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, [however,] the self is not the
central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the
focus" (qtd. in Tangney and Dearing 18).
June Price Tangney and Ronda L. Dearing have considered Lewis's
distinction in numerous empirical tests of shame and guilt. In their book they
report on their findings: they confirm Lewis's distinction and draw out its
implications, emphasizing the negative consequences of shame as against the
positive value of guilt.
According to the authors, shame is
a "primitive," self-centered emotion associated with anger,
aggression, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, family violence and
suicide. In its focus on the bad self, shame is an "extremely painful and
ugly feeling" (3) that sufferers will usually do anything to defend
against--hiding from others, for instance, or lashing out at them. On the other hand, guilt is the more
"adaptive" emotion; indeed, the authors argue that it is the more
moral emotion, as it is other-oriented and empathetic: "[M]odern morality centers on the
ability to acknowledge one's wrongdoing, accept responsibility, and take
reparative action" (127). While the authors could have done without the
problematic distinction between "primitive" and "modern"
morality, they nonetheless argue convincingly that a well-developed capacity
for guilt leads not to neurosis (as Freudian theory would suggest), but to a
morality of reparation and empathetic regard--clearly better for humankind than
a shame morality of blame and vengeful anger that can lead to violence,
feuding, and war.
Dearing sum up their thesis quite bluntly:
"The pattern is pretty clear-cut: guilt is good; shame is bad"
(136). The authors come to this conclusion after surveying a great deal of
empirical research on guilt and shame, research using a number of standardized
measures. The data collected sometimes confirms and sometimes overturns
previous conclusions on guilt and shame. While acknowledging the importance of
previous theories, the authors see their own job as presenting "scientific
knowledge"--interpreting the hard data that has been gathered on these
emotions--and suggesting how this knowledge may be put to use for social
initial chapters lay the groundwork. The first does a quick survey of earlier
accounts of shame and guilt, noting that these two emotions have often been
confused and that empirical research is needed in order to straighten things
out. The second chapter outlines the problems involved in such research,
surveying measures that have been used and arguing for the greater efficacy of
scenario-based tests. (Samples of such tests are included in Appendix B, along
with Tables of Findings in Appendix A).
From this base, Tangney and Dearing move outward in succeeding chapters,
discussing in turn the divergent effects of shame and guilt on the self, on
interpersonal relationships (at work, in intimate relations, and in the
family), and on the social order as a whole.
Throughout, the authors highlight the social adaptiveness of guilt, its
orientation toward the other. On the
other hand, in its self-absorption and potential for aggression, shame
interferes with empathy. The shamed person may turn on others and hurt them, or
worse: we know the stories of the
humiliated worker returning home in fury to beat his wife and children, and the
shamed student returning grimly to his classroom with a gun.
Sometimes the shamed one directs
this aggression inward, and psychopathology
can result. This tends to happen in women more than in men. That shame is strongly linked to depression
was argued by Lewis in The Role of Shame in Symptom Formation (1987),
and is confirmed by Tangney and Dearing, who note that the shame-prone and the
depressed share a tendency to make "internal, stable, and global
attributions" for negative events (117)--both groups seeing themselves as
always to blame for everything.
most interesting part of Shame and Guilt, for this reviewer at least, is
the discussion, in Chapter Nine, of individual variations in proneness to shame
and guilt come about. The authors look
to environmental differences, particularly in the family context, for
answers. Children learn "moral
emotional styles" from their parents or caregivers: from a family-systems
perspective, there are "intergenerational continuities" in shame-proneness
vs. guilt-proneness, acquired through direct modeling and more general
interactions between parent and child.
The shame-prone parent is more likely to punish his or her child through
ridicule and humiliation, emphasizing the defective self; in turn, the shamed
child is learning to do the same.
Intervention must center on educating parents in "disciplinary
strategies that encourage an adaptive capacity for guilt versus maladaptive
shame reactions" (156); that is, parents must be shown how they can
discipline their children more humanely and effectively by targeting
unacceptable actions, not defective selves.
in the family, so in the therapist's office, the school and the court. In the final two chapters of Shame and
Guilt, the authors discuss how shame can arise in the
therapeutic relationship (through both negative transference
and negative counter-transference), putting successful outcomes at risk. When
this happens, the authors suggest, therapists can remind their clients--and
themselves--of the difference between shame and guilt. The school, of course, is the shame arena par
excellence. Teachers need to avoid overtly shaming disciplinary practices
such as exposing a child to ridicule, of course, but also (like parents) they
should encourage guilt rather than shame "by focusing on the behavior, not
the person" (188). Finally, the authors turn to the American criminal
justice system, suggesting that reform is more likely when restorative justice
is applied, inducing guilt in the offender and opening particular routes (such
as community service) for making amends.
In their view, given the links they point out between shaming, rage and
violent aggression, judges are "woefully misguided" in giving shaming
sentences to offenders.
all these levels, then, from the individual self to the social institutions of
family, school, and justice system, Tangney and Dearing emphasize that
"there are good ways and bad ways to feel bad" about having
transgressed (194). Guilt is the good,
the more "moral and adaptive," way; shame is the bad way, the inner
demon responsible for so much psychopathology and violence in society:
"Our lives as individuals, as social beings, and as a society can be
enhanced by transforming painful, problematic feelings of shame into more
adaptive feelings of guilt. Recognizing
the distinction between shame and guilt is an important first step in making
ours a more moral society" (194).
and Dearing have a strong and uncompromising thesis in Shame and Guilt,
and on the whole they support it convincingly in drawing together and
presenting the research on just about every aspect of our experience of guilt
and shame. As I am a humanist and not a social scientist, I am not qualified to
comment upon the quality of the authors' research and the validity of their
conclusions. However, there are a few
issues that I would have liked to see addressed more. The first is gender. At
points, the authors do consider gender differences: for instance, they report one study indicating that shamed men
tend to direct their anger outward, in acts of aggression, while shamed women
tend to turn this anger inward, and another study suggesting that in general
women tend to experience greater shame and guilt than men do. On the whole, however, gender differences
are not their interest, and most of the measures they have used or report on do
not appear to differentiate on the basis of gender. Given their throwaway
comment that women appear to experience both greater shame and greater guilt
than men do, it would seem important to give more attention to this difference
(which is no surprise to feminists). Further, class and cultural differences do
not seem to have been a concern. Quite
a few of the studies reported on seem to have been carried out on college
students (always a handy group for university researchers), a group with
particular sources of shame (for instance, failing in studies, failing to live
up to self- and parental expectations) that must override, to some extent,
differences in gender, class, and culture.
these reservations, however, I will say that Shame and Guilt is an
accessible, thought-provoking reevaluation of two emotions deeply involved in
our social lives. The authors' warnings about shame and its dangers will prod
readers to question what they think they know about this unsettling emotion.
2003 Hilary Clark
Hilary Clark is an Associate
Professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Saskatchewan in
Canada. Her research interests include theories of shame, trauma, and
depression; auto/pathography (particularly narratives of mental illness); and
women's life writing. With Joseph
Adamson she has co-edited Scenes of Shame: Psychoanalysis, Shame, and
Writing (SUNY Press, 1998), contributing a chapter on shame and reparation
in Anne Sexton's poetry. She has also
published on Melanie Klein's unpublished life writing in "Autobiography,
Mourning and Reparation: The Case of Melanie Klein," a/b:
Auto/Biography Studies 15.2 (2000).
Forthcoming work includes a personal essay on living with depression in
the academy, and an article on rhetorical strategies in two women's narratives
of psychiatric hospitalization.