From shame to self-worth: evolutionary neurobiology of shame

Dog looking guilty

Have you ever scolded a dog and seen him or her look guilty?

Obviously, animals do not have the elaborated textures of thoughts and feelings that humans do. But our emotions, even the subtlest ones, have their roots in our ancient evolutionary history. By understanding that history better, we do not reduce our feelings to animal instincts, but instead find illuminations from our past that paradoxically give us more choices in manifesting ourselves as fully human.

We can find two sources of shame spectrum emotions in our evolutionary history.

First, many animal species live in social groups with clear dominance hierarchies. Once those pecking orders are established, it can be lethal to challenge them. Consequently, many species have developed ways of signaling submission to the established order of alpha-males and –females. Consider how dogs losing a fight will bare their throat, or chimpanzees will display gestures of deference.

Also see:

Birds, and especially mammals, have rudimentary forms of the brain circuitry that produces emotion in humans. Those circuits would not have developed, consuming lots of metabolic resources, if they did not produce reproductive benefits.

Emotions function in the brain to motivate and guide behavior. We can’t read the mind of a chicken, sure, or that of a dog or an ape, but it seems like a very efficient way to keep these animals in line if they are experiencing emotions or attitudes that are the equivalent of feeling less than the Big Dog of the pack.

Second, taking this one step further, pack animals evolved cooperative behavior. Think penguins huddling together in the Antarctic winter, and cattle circling around their calves in response to wolves hunting in packs. But in most cases, their cooperation does not involve personal sacrifice for the good of others.

That comes in, big time, with primates, who appeared around the middle of the Cretaceous period, roughly 80 million years ago – so they had lots of time to evolve altruistic behaviors such as food sharing. And the full flowering of altruism – giving to others with no immediate tangible reward – is really seen in humans.

But how could altruism evolve when it would seem to confer reproductive disadvantages on the one who was altruistic? This has been a thorny question in sociobiology, with some interesting answers.

What they have found is that altruism makes sense from an evolutionary perspective when three conditions are present:

  • People (including our hominid ancestors several million years ago) lived and predominantly bred within social groups (typically around 20 – 200 members). Consequently, even if a person’s altruism led to her not passing on her genes, close relatives would live and pass on their own, and would be more likely to do so, given her sacrifice.
  • Social groups competed intensely with each other for scarce resources in the wild, so ones that worked well together – including because of personal, altruistic sacrifices of some group members – would have their reproductive advantages make a big difference.
  • The reputation of individuals would be known to others. So if someone became known as a non-reciprocator – a taker, not a giver – then he risked others no longer sharing food, shelter, etc. So people developed a natural interest in their reputation, in what others thought of them.

An unpleasant emotion that punished individual tribe members for not stepping up for the tribe in fights with other tribes, and for not reciprocating today for help offered yesterday, would help a tribe succeed in its brutal competition with other tribes. And as a variant on that theme, an unpleasant emotion that enabled tribe members to train their young quickly in proper behavior – proper in central Africa, a million years ago, or during the last Ice Age, say 15,000 years ago – would also confer advantages to that tribe.

Thus the origins of shame and guilt in the long slow grind of evolutionary history.

Exercise: “Letting Go of Shame”

Here are the instructions for the exercise, which you can adapt freely:

Imagine that you are sitting beside a powerful river on a beautiful sunny day. You feel safe and contented and strong.

Imagine that sitting with you is a wise and supportive being. Perhaps someone you know personally, perhaps a historical figure, perhaps a guardian angel, etc. Know in your heart that this is a very wise and honest and caring being.

Imagine a small boat tied to the bank of the river, there near you. Imagine an empty and open box in the boat that you can reach easily. Now, continuing to be centered in feelings of worth and well-being, bring to mind lightly something you are ashamed of. Represent it, whatever it is, as a small object on the ground in front of you.

Imagine that the being is telling you, or that you are telling the being, some of the many causes and conditions that led to that thing you are ashamed of. You don’t need the whole story; often a few seconds in your imagination can summarize the heart of the matter.

With that summary of the causes of the shame, see if you can feel a letting go inside.

If you like, in your imagination, bow to the object representing the shame: it exists, it is what it is.

Then put the object in the box, and let it go as much as you can.

Now bring to mind, lightly, something else you are ashamed of. Represent it, whatever it is, as a small object on the ground in front of you.

Feel free to repeat this exercise, and to go at your own pace, slowing down to dwell on certain parts, or speeding up to get through them to additional things you’d like to put in the boat.

Read More

Dealing with guilt and shame (Day 19)

dealing with guilt and shame

People use the words “guilt” and “shame” in different ways. In everyday communication they’re used pretty much interchangeably. And the dictionary definitions aren’t significantly different. For example, shame is “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior,” while guilt is “a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation.”

Both of those involve a painful emotional response to having done something wrong. The word “shame” however has more of a connotation of personal failure (hence, “humiliation”) and is also described in stronger emotional terms.

In psychology, the two terms are used in very different ways. “Guilt” is used to refer to painful feelings of remorse. That is, we’ve done something that’s objectively or subjectively wrong and we feel bad about it. “Shame” is used to refer to fundamental feelings of unworthiness. It’s a sense of being fundamentally flawed, and that we, at our core, are “bad.”

The Buddhist word that corresponds to “guilt” is hiri. I’m going to use the word “remorse” to translate it, though, because even though the word guilt has that technical sense of “consciousness of having done wrong” as opposed to shame’s “consciousness of being wrong at one’s core,” the word remorse is very clearly about feeling bad because you’ve done something wrong.

In the Buddhist community I’m part of, the terms guilt and shame are commonly used the other way around. In fact the majority of Buddhist translators have used “shame” to translate hiri. That’s possibly because Christians tend to use the word “guilt” (sometimes in the sense of fundamental unworthiness — more about that below) and so various translators wanted to emphasize that Buddhism sees things differently. In this article I’ll stick with the widely accepted, modern psychological, use of the terms.

Shame doesn’t play a role in Buddhist practice. The idea of us being flawed in our very essence doesn’t work well in a tradition that says you have no essence. From the Buddhist point of view, everything that makes up “us” is impermanent. Yes, we all contain unskillful (akusala) drives and impulses, based on greed, hatred, and delusion. But those are not inherent parts of us. They are impermanent processes, and those processes can be ended.

In Buddhist psychology remorse (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 remorse is definitely not pleasant. In fact it can be rather painful. So what does it mean to say that remorse is skillful?

Remorse/hiri 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 remorse. This is the painful sense that our behavior has departed from the values we hold dear. And this helps us reconnect with those values.

We often lose touch with our 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 remorse 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.

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

And here’s where remorse (or guilt, if you want) is different from shame. Shame is focused on us, not on our actions. Shame may well be triggered by a specific thing we’ve done wrong, 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. Shame is a form of self-hatred. So while shame and guilt/remorse/hiri may seem similar, they’re actually opposites.

Shame 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 shame, reminding ourselves that our unskillfulness is something that’s relatively superficial. It’s liberating to recognize this.

And when we feel remorse, we can recognize that this is a healthy and useful response to having acted unskillfully. We don’t have to feel remorse for having felt remorse, which is what I think often happens. When remorse (or even shame) arises can recognize that we’re suffering, and treat our suffering kindly. (This is the practice of self-compassion that I’ve explained elsewhere.)

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 remorse 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.

(An earlier version of this article used the words “guilt” and “shame” in the way they’re often used by Buddhist translators, and in the community I practice in. I’ve corrected that usage here to bring the terminology into line with the conventional usage. I’ve also opted to use “remorse” as a clearer alternative to “guilt” and as a more accurate translation of hiri.)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Read More

When you have trouble being kind to yourself (Day 18)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order and Triratna Buddhist Community, is asked by Ratnaguna in this video from (I think) 1991 why some of us have difficulties feeling kindness towards ourselves, and what we can do about it.

Here’s a transcript of the video below.

Ratnaguna: I think it would be true to say that most people find the mindfulness of
breathing the easier of the two meditation practices [mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness meditation] and some people I think go so far as to say they they just can’t do the metta bhavana [lovingkindness meditation] — it’s too difficult. What would you say to people who say that?

Sangharakshita: I think people say this for various reasons, so it’s difficult to generalize and also it’s difficult to given an answer that will be applicable to all cases.

I think a lot of people when they try to to develop feelings of goodwill towards other living beings are a bit too forceful about it — and I won’t say wilful, because that word has perhaps been overused, not to say abused. They they’re a bit too forceful, let us say. They don’t do it in a sufficiently relaxed sort of way.

I think the secret is to to look at your relations to people, to things, to animals, and just to ask yourself, well, where do you have positive feelings? Where do you feel good will? Take that as a starting point, and remind yourself that, yes, you are capable of feeling goodwill. And in as much as you do experience goodwill towards this person or that creature. You’re able to develop it towards a greater number of people, a greater number of creatures. You are able to eventually even universalize it.

Ratnaguna: I think of the five stages of, the metta bhavana, the one that people find the most difficult is the first stage — the development of loving kindness towards oneself — and they often say that they be able to do the metta bhavana if it wasn’t for the first stage. And they quite often miss the first stage out. Do you think that’s advisable?

Sangharakshita: Well, if one has really insuperable difficulty in developing goodwill towards oneself, but can experience at least some goodwill towards others, then concentrate on the goodwill towards others for the time being. But you mustn’t give up on yourself, as it were. You must nonetheless, sooner or later, come back to developing feelings of goodwill towards yourself.

Very often people are unable or find it very difficult to develop goodwill towards themselves because they’ve been brought up with the the idea, or they’ve somehow acquired the idea, that they’re unworthy — that they don’t deserve affection or goodwill. They may even feel, in specifically Christian terms, that they’re sinners — even miserable sinners — and not deserving of anything like goodwill. Perhaps they don’t like themselves. Perhaps they don’t — I’m not going to say “accept” themselves — again this is a term that has become overused. But in some ways they’re unduly critical of themselves, and they have to let up a bit.

PS Feel free to join our Google+ 100 Day Community (now replaced by Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative), where people are reporting-in on their practice, and giving each other support and encouragement.

Read More

Connecting with Our ‘Soul Sadness’

hands holding sad-looking withered leaves

>Marge, a woman in our meditation community, was in a painful standoff with her teenage son. At fifteen, Micky was in a downward spiral of skipping classes and using drugs, and had just been suspended for smoking marijuana on school grounds. While Marge blamed herself — she was the parent, after all — she was also furious at him.

The piercings she hadn’t approved, the lies, stale smell of cigarettes, and earphones that kept him in his own removed world — every interaction with Micky left her feeling powerless, angry, and afraid. The more she tried to take control with her criticism, with “groundings” and other ways of setting limits, the more withdrawn and defiant Micky became. When she came in for a counseling session, she wanted to talk about why the entire situation was really her fault.

An attorney with a large firm, Marge felt she’d let her career get in the way of attentive parenting. She’d divorced Micky’s father when the boy was entering kindergarten, and her new partner, Jan, had moved in several years later. More often than not, it was Jan, not Marge, who went to PTA meetings and soccer games, Jan who was there when Micky got home from school. Recently, the stress had peaked when a new account increased Marge’s hours at work.

Also see:

“I wish I’d been there for him more,” she said. “I love him, I’ve tried, but now it is impossible to reach him. I’m so afraid he is going to create a train wreck out of his life.” I heard the despair in her voice. When she fell silent, I invited her to sit quietly for a few moments. “You might notice whatever feelings you’re aware of, and when you’re ready, name them out loud.” When she spoke again, Marge’s tone was flat. “Anger — at him, at me, who knows. Fear — he’s ruining his life. Guilt, shame — so much shame, for screwing up as a mother.”

I asked her softly if it would be okay to take some time to investigate the shame. She nodded. “You might start by agreeing to let it be there, sensing where you feel it most in your body.” Again she nodded, and few moments later, put one hand on her heart and another on her belly. “Good,” I said. “Keep letting yourself feel the shame, and sense if there is something it wants to say. What is it believing about you, about your life?”

It was a while before Marge spoke. “The shame says that I let everyone down. I’m so caught up in myself, what’s important to me. It’s not just Micky, it’s Jan, and Rick (her ex-husband), and my mom, and … I’m selfish and too ambitious, I disappoint everyone I care about.”

“How long have you felt this way, that you’ve let everyone down?” I asked. She said, “As long as I can remember. Even as a little girl. I’ve always felt I was failing people, that I didn’t deserve love. Now I run around trying to achieve things, trying to be worthy, and I end up failing those I love the most!”

“Take a moment, Marge, and let the feeling of failing people, of being undeserving of love, be as big as it really is.” After a few moments she said, “It’s like a sore tugging feeling in my heart.”

“Now,” I said, “sense what it’s like to know that even as a little girl — for as long as you can remember — you’ve lived with this pain of not deserving love, lived with this sore tugging in your heart. Sense what that has done to your life.” Marge grew very still and then began silently weeping.

Marge was experiencing what I call “soul sadness,” the sadness that arises when we’re able to sense our temporary, precious existence, and directly face the suffering that’s come from losing life. We recognize how our self-aversion has prevented us from being close to others, from expressing and letting love in. We see, sometimes with striking clarity, that we’ve closed ourselves off from our own creativity and spontaneity, from being fully alive. We remember missed moments when it might have been otherwise, and we begin to grieve our unlived life.

This grief can be so painful that we tend, unconsciously, to move away from it. Even if we start to touch our sadness, we often bury it by reentering the shame—judging our suffering, assuming that we somehow deserve it, telling ourselves that others have “real suffering” and we shouldn’t be filled with self pity. Our soul sadness is fully revealed only when we directly and mindfully contact our pain. It is revealed when we stay on the spot and fully recognize that this human being is having a hard time. In such moments we discover a natural upwelling of compassion—the tenderness of our own forgiving heart.

When Marge’s crying subsided, I suggested she ask the place of sorrow what it longed for most. She knew right away: “To trust that I’m worthy of love in my life.” I invited her to once again place one hand on her heart and another on her belly, letting the gentle pressure of her touch communicate care. “Now sense whatever message most resonates for you, and send it inwardly. Allow the energy of the message to bathe and comfort all the places in your being that need to hear it.”

After a couple of minutes of this, Marge took a few full breaths. Her expression was serene, undefended. “This feels right,” she said quietly, “being kind to my own hurting heart.” Marge had looked beyond her fault to her need. She was healing herself with compassion.

Before she left, I suggested she pause whenever she became aware of guilt or shame, and take a moment to reconnect with self-compassion. If she was in a private place, she could gently touch her heart and belly, and let that contact deepen her communication with her inner life. I also encouraged her to include the metta (lovingkindness) practice for herself and her son in her daily meditation: “You’ll find that self-compassion will open you to feeling more loving.”

Six weeks later Marge and I met again. She told me that at the end of her daily meditation, she’d started doing metta for herself, reminding herself of her honesty, sincerity, and longing to love well. Then she’d offer herself wishes, most often reciting, “May I accept myself just as I am. May I be filled with loving-kindness, held in lovingkindness.” After a few minutes she’d then bring her son to mind: “I would see how his eyes light up when he gets animated, and how happy he looks when he laughs. Then I’d say ‘May you feel happy. May you feel relaxed and at ease. May you feel my love now.’ With each phrase I’d imagine him happy, relaxed, feeling held in my love.”

Their interactions started to change. She went out early on Saturday mornings to pick up his favorite “everything” bagels before he woke up. He brought out the trash unasked. They watched several episodes of The Wire together on TV. Then,” Marge told me, “a few nights ago, he came into my home office, made himself comfortable on the couch, and said nonchalantly, ‘What’s up, Mom? Just thought I’d check in.’”

“It wasn’t exactly an extended chat,” she said with a smile. “He suddenly sprang up and told me he had to meet some friends at the mall. But we’re more at ease, a door has reopened.” Marge was thoughtful for a few moments, then said, “I understand what happened. By letting go of the blame—most of which I was aiming at myself—I created room for both of us in my heart.”

As Marge was discovering, self-compassion is entirely interdependent with acting responsibly and caringly toward others. Forgiving ourselves clears the way for a loving presence that can appreciate the goodness of others, and respond to their hurts and needs. And, in turn, our way of relating to others affects how we regard ourselves and supports our ongoing self-forgiveness.

Adapted from True Refuge (on sale January 2013)

Read More

“Guilt: An Exploration” by Caroline Brazier

Guilt: An Exploration, by Caroline Brazier A leading Buddhist teacher writes about the knotty problem of guilt, but chooses to do so through a blend of fictional narrative, autobiography, and commentary. Vajradevi reveals all.

Caroline Brazier is a Buddhist practitioner and a psychotherapist of many years standing. She is a course leader of the Amida Psychotherapy training program and lives in a Buddhist community in England. She brings these two aspects of training and experience to bear in her book, Guilt: An Exploration. The Buddhist aspect is implicit in the kindness and perceptiveness Caroline Brazier brings to her subject. You will find this book in the “Psychology” section of your bookstore and it is this perspective that frames the story she tells.

Unusually, Brazier has decided to approach this nebulous and pervasive topic through a blend of fiction, autobiography, and commentary. She deliberately relegates theoretical ideas to the far margins of her book. There is not a study or survey result to be seen. We don’t get to hear anything of how guilt generally affects human beings or who is most susceptible to its influence. Instead she focuses down on a group of young children and, to a lesser extent, their parents and tells their fictional story letting us witness the complex emotions that form part of growing into adolescence and adulthood.

Title: Guilt: An Exploration
Author: Caroline Brazier
Publisher: O-Books
ISBN: 978-1-84694-160-3
Available from:

She places her characters in south London of the 1960’s. Not the England of the Beatles and mini-skirts and beehives but “a time of transition where traditions were still respected and radical new ways of thinking had yet to reach the majority of the general population.” A world characterized by freedom for children to roam away from familiar adults and create a realm of their own.

Brazier brings to rich and colorful life many of the ordinary events that provoke guilty feelings.

Through these characters and particularly “Joanne,” a spirited 10 year old tomboy when we first meet her, Brazier shows the nuances and subtleties of the feeling of guilt. When feelings, thoughts and actions conflict how does a child make sense of them? What affects the decisions we make to act? How do we feel when we want to act in a way we think is wrong and will be disapproved of by those we love or are scared of? How do we grow and explore our world when it means pushing against the boundaries of those who love us, or keeping secrets from them? Brazier explores Joanne and her friends’ responses of guilt in relation to ethics. How does a child work out what is the “right” or “wrong” thing to do? What of the “moral uncertainty” of different value systems a child is exposed to? Or, she asks, does the child have a deeply felt sense of what is the correct way to be?

Some of these questions Brazier leaves open while she answers others by painting a picture of great delicacy. What I appreciated most about her book is that guilt is not made into a heavy, static entity but something that arises in the intersections of emotions and impulses to act, and that guilt can be seen as almost a natural part of maturing.

The book captures the fear, doubt, anger and sheer uncomfortableness of many moments of a child’s everyday life. It is in these moments that guilt seems to lurk as well as in times that thrill and fascinate with new experiences. Through the story Caroline Brazier brings to rich and colorful life many of the ordinary events that provoke such feelings. A boy who loses an expensive new coat is thrown into agonies of confusion and guilt by the unexpected forgiveness from his strict mother. A girl unable to understand her new desire for intimacy is unkind to a school friend. Another child feels “different” and ashamed because of family secrets about her mother’s affair and her own racial background. Parents’ religious values conflict with each other and their child is caught in the middle, guilty at his ability to play one parent against the other. Sexual exploration is one of the main themes in the book evoking a whole cocktail of strong emotions — especially guilt — for the pre-adolescent Joanne to get to grips with.

The book captures the fear, doubt, anger and sheer uncomfortableness of many moments of a child’s everyday life.

Often these occasions are a doorway to a new freedom, a new step in understanding and maturity that enrich a child’s life. Caroline Brazier’s story paints a powerful picture of the complexities of growing up. I am of a similar age to the author and brought up in the UK so there were many parallels to our experience as children. She evokes the world of a child in this period very well. I found many of my own memories and feelings re-surfacing, of times spent with my brothers and sisters building dens in the local woods and playing vivid adventure fantasy games alongside a meandering stream, coming home wet, muddy and happy.

The life of a child and teenager in 2009 is radically different to that of a child growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. Multiculturalism has given rise to many different ways of child-rearing within one society. Society itself is a more complex organism and children are at the same time more protected by parents but more exposed to danger especially from other young people. I have a question in my mind as to how well this book would translate to a reader from a different generation or culture. I suspect something would be lost but perhaps the central exploration would remain clear.

At times I would have appreciated a little more theory which would have helped to give the book more of a framework. As it stands, without many “hooks” from which a structure could hang, a cursory reading might lead to underestimating the value of “Joanne’s” story. This would be a shame as many areas such as independence, projections, conscience, choosing and testing loyalties are woven in to the book in a natural and informative way.

Read More

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Explore the benefits of becoming a supporter.