Years ago, Dr. Eugene Gendlin, my psychological mentor, told me that guilt is a useless emotion. “It doesn’t do anybody any good,” he said. “It just makes you feel bad.”
I pondered that for a long time. Wasn’t guilt what normal, decent people experience when they’ve betray their own sense of fair play? When they cheat or lie? Would I be responsible and reliable without my guilty conscience?
Back in those days, I wasn’t aware of feeling shame. Later, I learned that shame is the last emotion we become aware of. In fact, shame is such an uncomfortable feeling that psychology has only recently studied it. Most people squirm at the thought of studying their own shame.
Since shame is the inevitable outcome of child abuse, it seems important to get a handle on it. But what’s the difference between shame and guilt?
Guilt is in response to something we have done. Shame, on the other hand, is about who we are. There is something innately defective or wrong with us.
That means that we can do something about guilt. We can make amends, change our behaviour or apologize.
Maybe that’s what Dr. Gendlin meant – that we don’t have to carry our guilt with us. Maybe the message is this: Do whatever you need to do and drop your guilt.
What do you think? Please let me know by writing a comment in the space provided below.