Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Joy Lessons: Guilt, Shame, and Trajectories of Joy

How does joy relate to guilt and shame? On the surface, it may seem like there is no relationship between joy and guilt or shame, or perhaps an inverse relationship betwen them. And hey, aren't guilt and shame basically the same thing anyway? This post will first deal with the difference between guilt and shame and then will deal with the relationship between joy and guilt and joy and shame.

Guilt and shame may feel similar in the emotional moment. Neither feels all that pleasant. Each indicates the perception of something being wrong. Both may feel like there is no space for joy with them. However, guilt and shame are very different.

Physical pain is unpleasant, but is necessary in that it helps to indicate that there is physical damage or threat. Guilt is emotional pain that serves the same purpose. It is an indicator that something is wrong. Guilt tells a person that a moral or relational violation has occurred. It points to an event or even a series of events that ar by some measure, wrong. Guilt is the beginning of change because whatever the event, there is hope for change. Guilt is the feeling that helps to initiate repair or redemption. Although unpleasant, guilt is the precursor to hope and reconciliation. The trajectory of guilt is hopeful in that something can be done about it.

Shame is different. Shame does not point to an event that was wrong, but is personal. Shame points to the person and says, "wrong." Where guilt says, "that was a mistake," shame says, "you are a mistake." Where guilt says, "there was a failure," shame says, "you are a failure." Guilt points to an event that can be dealt with while shame points to the quality of the person and declares it inadequate. Guilt is the feeling flowing from the belief that something went wrong. Shame is the feeling flowing from the belief that the person is defective. Shame points to the person and says, "You are inadequate, unworthy, incapable, and deficient."

The trajectory of shame is simply more shame. Shame points to the static and unfixable quaity of the person. Shame does not label an event,but labels a person. In short, shame results in hopelessness.

Thus, even though neither guilt nor shame feels good, guilt is the dawn of joy while shame is eternal night. Something good can occur in the context of guilt, but nothing good can happen in the context of shame. As guilt can be instructive to seek redemption or reconciliation, that process builds toward joy. Shame offers no such promise.

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