Shame and guilt aren’t synonyms

Previously I wrote about the benefits of shame, but it’s also worth exploring the differences between guilt and shame, as they’re often confused.

Shame keeps you from doing something stupid because of a visceral understanding of the wider consequences of an action. Hence shame plays a protective role.

Guilt serves no constructive purpose because it gnaws at you after the fact. Even worse, guilt usually mixes cause and effect: you’re upset at the negative results you’re experiencing rather developing a plan to deal with that which has caused them.

To use my drinking analogy again, guilt is moaning that you have a bad headache, are tired, and feeling you are a “bad” person because you had a heavy night of drinking. None of these are constructive. In fact, intense feelings of guilt along the lines of “I’m such a bad person” are very likely to induce learned helplessness, which in turn makes you more likely to go off and have another night of heavy drinking.

The shame approach is to apologize and make amends wherever reasonable, accept the negative results as inevitable, and figure out ways to prevent the root cause from happening again, thereby completely sidestepping the whole “I’m a bad person” routine.

It looks like a lot of the “self help content” stuff obsessively tries to fight against the already inevitable results of an action and then latches onto the identity of “I’m a bad person”, or “I can’t help it because I’m neurodivergent / depressed / have anxiety”.

To clarify, I’m not dismissing these condition when diagnosed and treated by actual professionals. What I’m questioning is the increasingly common case of people diagnosing themselves with whatever after reading a blog post. It’s become increasingly common in the US to go to your GP or equivalent, who likely has almost no training in clinical psychology, share your self-diagnosis, and be prescribed powerful, life-altering drugs after a five-minute conversation. We don’t take iatrogenesis seriously in the current model of mental health in the West.

From the Buddhist perspective, this definition of guilt maps to kukkucca, which is usually translated as “worry” and is always an unwholesome mental state. It is essentially a form of aversion towards oneself.