People 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.