Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

Follow us!

Follow us on social media sites, using RSS, on a Kindle, or on our iPhone app.


Blog

Dealing with guilt and shame (Day 19)

Lotus, isolated on whitePeople use the words “guilt” and “shame” in different ways. I use “shame” to translate the Buddhist word “hiri” and see guilt as being something entirely different. And I think an awareness of this difference is very important to recognize when we’re trying to live with more kindness.

In Buddhist psychology shame (hiri) is a skillful rather than an unskillful mental state. This may be surprising! We usually think of “skillful” mental states as being pleasant, and shame is definitely not pleasant. In fact it can be rather painful. So what does it mean to say that shame is skillful?

Shame is considered to be a spiritually useful emotion — an emotion that leads to our happiness and well-being — because it realigns us with our ideals. It’s uncomfortable, but good for us. When we’ve not acted at our best, or way below our best — when we’ve hurt someone, or been untruthful, or let someone down, for example — and we then become aware that this is not how we want to behave, a painful feeling can arise. This is shame. This is us reconnecting with our deeper values.

We often lose touch with those deeper values in daily life. We’re complex beings. Yes, we want to be kind to people and yes, we want to be honest. But some parts of the brain are running on a very old operating system — shared with crocodiles and wolf-packs — that tells us to lash out when we’re threatened. Let’s call that brain 1.0.

And we have parts of the brain running on a somewhat newer, but still old, operating system that tells us not to jeopardize our standing with our “pack.” This is an operating system (“Brain 2.0″) that we share with wolves, but not with crocodiles. So sometimes we lie, exaggerating our accomplishments, minimizing our flaws, trying to make others look bad so that we’ll look better.

And then we have Brain 3.0, which is more truly human, and which fully recognizes the value of cooperation, kindness, and is able to reflect on what constitutes a good and ethical life. It’s able to formulate ideals for us to live by and ethical principles for us to hold ourselves to. Although I call this part of the brain “truly human” it’s not lacking in other mammals. It’s just more developed in humans, who have a very large neocortex — the part of the brain in which this form of morality exists.

So shame is when the neocortex (Brain 3.0) recognizes that we’ve been acting on the basis of fear, greed, or ill will — behaviors that are generated in Brains 1.0 and 2.0, and sees that those actions aren’t going to contribute to the wellbeing and happiness of ourselves or others.

Shame, for it to be healthy Buddhist shame, has to be focused on the act we’ve done. We feel bad because something was not a good thing to do. Shame, in a way, is a form of self-metta, since we’re reminding ourselves of what does and doesn’t contribute to our own happiness.

And here’s where shame is different from guilt. Guilt is focused on us, not on our actions. Guilt can be triggered by our actions, but we go from thinking that we’ve done something “bad” to thinking that we ourselves are “bad.” The “bad” thing we did is seen as proof that we have a “bad” self — perhaps even an essentially bad self. Guilt is a form of self-hatred. So while shame and guilt may seem similar, they’re actually opposites.

Guilt is very often influenced by the idea of original sin, which teaches us that sin is an inherent part of our nature. The Buddha’s view was that our unskillful tendencies are not inherent to us at all. They’re “not me, not mine, not myself.” Some Buddhist traditions emphasize that the mind is inherently pure, but that this purity is obscured by our unskillfulness. This is a much more encouraging way for us to think about ourselves, and many people feel a sense of relief when they come across this very positive view of what it means to be human. Of course even adopting this view that deep down we are good, there’s still a lot of work to do. But it’s easier to do that work when you don’t think that your unskillful tendencies are a fixed part of you, but are just “passing through.”

It’s worth, whenever we feel guilt, reminding ourselves that our unskillfulness is something that’s relatively superficial. It’s liberating!

And when we feel shame, we can recognize that this is a healthy and useful response to an awareness of our unskillful actions. We don’t have to feel ashamed of feeling ashamed, which is what I think often happens. When shame arises can recognize that we’re suffering, and treat our suffering kindly. And we can also do whatever is necessary — confess or apologize, or make amends, to help redress any harm we may have caused and to lighten our emotional load. We let the shame pass, reconnect with how we’d truly like to be living our lives, and then get on with the business of living with mindfulness and kindness.

Like it? Share it!

Share on Google+Share on FacebookShare on LinkedInEmail this to someoneShare on StumbleUponPin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

Read other articles on:

Related articles

About Bodhipaksa

avatar

Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and a published author. He founded Wildmind in 2001. Bodhipaksa has published many guided meditation CDs and guided meditation MP3s.

He teaches at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. You can follow Bodhipaksa on Twitter, join him on Facebook, or hang out with him on .

Read more articles by .

Comments

avatar

Comment from Freddy
Time: April 30, 2013, 4:09 am

I love this post, realizing the difference between doing bad actions (or unskillful, which carries much more self-compassion, and therefore healing IMHO) and being bad made a HUGE difference in my life, it had me realize I already had what I was looking for so long…
I’ve come across the same idea in Brene Brown’s work (http://www.brenebrown.com/my-blog/2013/1/14/shame-v-guilt.html), it’s funny to notice how she expresses the same idea while defining shame and guilt’s meaning the other way round…

avatar

Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 1, 2013, 12:16 pm

Yes, the terminology we use doesn’t much matter as long as we’re making the distinction and we’re clear about what we mean. But for me, phrases like “Catholic guilt” and “survivor’s guilt” are so deeply rooted that it makes much more sense to regard “guilt” as the less rational and more self-judgmental of the two terms.

avatar

Comment from Freddy
Time: May 1, 2013, 5:13 pm

I can very well relate to that, both words carry quite a lot of self-judgment in french (my native language) too.
That’s why I liked so much the use of unskillful to qualify “bad” behaviors. It carries a lot of relief as it doesn’t question a person’s fundamental willingness to do their best.

avatar

Comment from Suze
Time: May 5, 2013, 5:52 pm

I am immediately attracted to information about guilt, because I seem to bring that into my (Tibetan Buddhist) practice constantly. I became a Buddhist and later became disabled. At first I spent many (if not most) hours of my day in practice. Then, due to worsening pain and grief over the death of my oldest son, practice (nearly always on my mind) became harder to sustain. It is a vicious (truly) cycle as, while the rational part of me knew that much practice (such as my Ikebana) occurs off of the cushion. Yet shame from a day when I was too painful or too depressed to get to my shrine room would carry into the formal practice the next day. Often, if I can do no more, I sit before sleep in practice. Yet my monkey mind cannot give “credit” for less than perfect practice. This, of course, makes any glimpses of right very few and far between. It is, as if, I feel undeserving. It was helpful to see the above;I suspect that many of us lose what we have, punishing ourselves for not being who we believe we should be becoming. Expectations get confused with aspiration. Why, knowing this, can I not fix it?

avatar

Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 6, 2013, 9:52 am

In studies of psychology, it’s been shown that for there to be a healthy relationship appreciative statements have to outnumber critical statements five to one. I suspect that for many of us our relationship with ourselves is in the reverse proportions. So I’d suggest that you more consciously drop into the mind phrases like “It’s OK not to be perfect” or “The only place I can start is where I am; where I am in the perfect place to be starting from.” And the metta phrases, “May I be well, may I be happy” (or for others, “May all beings be well, may all beings be happy”) will help build a healthier relationship with yourself.

You should watch out also for language that traps and limits you. For example you wrote “Why can I not fix it?” This is doubly unhelpful because not only have you assumed you “can’t” change (as opposed to not having yet learned how to change) but you’re asking “why?” As soon as you ask a question like “why am I like this” you will come up with a bunch of answers, even if you don’t realize it. So you’re building up your negative self view.

In fact in asking me “Why can I not fix it?” you’re asking me to confirm your negative self view. You want me to tell you why you’re incapable of changing your life, xhich I’m not going to do because I don’t accept the premise that you can’t change. Why not ask, “What can I do to change this?” That at least implies that you want to change things, rather than asking for my permission not to change (which is what you did). Basically, you’ve been talking yourself into hopelessness and helplessness.

You can change your thoughts (some of them at least) so why not choose thoughts that are actually helpful. Instead of saying “I can’t do this” say “I haven’t yet found a way to do this.” Instead of asking me to confirm “Why can I not fix this?” ask “What can I do to change this?” (I don’t like the word “fix.” You’re not broken. You’ve just learned a bunch of habits that create pain. There’s nothing to stop you learning habits that free you from pain.)

avatar

Comment from Suze
Time: May 6, 2013, 6:39 pm

Actually, I said, “knowing” (my negative habitual tendencies, and knowing that I deserve (as much as any being) to be well and caring for myself, can I not fix this cycle. I believe that some of it is as irrational as blaming myself for the death of my son. Yet, part of me knows that 1)it was his karma and 2) he had a tough, but very good short life. He is likely in a better place (literally) than am I.

I commented, because some of us seem to be able to relax about practice, hoping for a good rebirth. Others, perhaps me (not sure) think that as long as beings suffer we *cannot* be easy on ourselves and need to try to reach enlightenment in one life. This brings guilt and shame, because having suffered acutely ourselves, we don’t want any being to stay in samara. sigh….. or something like that. I get confused about guilt and shame. I know that some is helpful, but perhaps don’t know which is not?

avatar

Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 6, 2013, 11:46 pm

As long as you keep subjecting yourself to “cannots” you’ll remain trapped in unhappiness. You have a choice.

avatar

Comment from Tom
Time: December 19, 2013, 4:54 pm

Great perspective , In these times I think it has never been more important to understand mind and body especially the increased stimuli surrounding us (technology , impulse and economics for example) and its effects on shame and guilt. That is two sided of course and can be Skillful or non skillful as you say . Hopefully everyone can find the right balance and know where to go for understanding in these situations.

avatar

Comment from Julie
Time: May 13, 2014, 11:35 pm

I think what should be added here is that shame is not always an emotion that shows us where we have been unskillfull or acted unkindly. Sometimes shame is a result of things that are imposed on us by society. eg. shame for being single, a solo mother, divorced, poor, a drug addict etc. Brene Brown writes about this a lot and offers an interesting perspective. Sometimes shame is not useful, other than it might show us that we are stuck with negative thoughts about ourselves that we need to work on.

avatar

Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 14, 2014, 1:28 pm

That’s true. It’s important to develop clarity of view (drshti/ditthi) so that we can see whether our shame is based on an ethical sensibility based on natural ethics, or whether it’s just a conventional morality, imposed on us from outside.

Leave a comment