Have you ever been on the receiving end of "being guilted," and you weren't even aware you'd done something wrong?
Have you ever been made to feel ashamed, but for the life of you, you couldn't manage to pull a shred of a lesson out of the interaction? After all, you care about people, and want to be thought well of by them, and if there was a chance to learn about them, yourself, to change and grow, you certainly would.
Have you ever felt like "less of a woman" or "less of a man" because of the ongoing presence of someone judgmental of you?
Maybe you were "one-upped," embarrassed, "made a laughing stock," knocked down, gossiped about or outright bullied by someone. At first, you were furious - no, enraged - but as the weeks or months went on, it crept under your skin and stayed with you. It even managed to make you wonder if there really was something wrong about you.
It could have been a boss, a coworker, a sister, mother, teacher, client, or even stranger who gave you this experience, some of whom you'll have to see again, or even regularly.
But you don't know what to make of it, and you don't know how you'll handle it if it happens again.
How about living guilt-free, shame-free, and empowered instead?
It turns out there may be some great lessons in the unexpected - the celebrity news.
There's a rising gladiator sport in recent years: making a spectacle of "celebrity shame" - the addictions, betrayal, infidelity, the rants, the nudity, the insensitive remarks, or the offensive in the form of out-of-context Tweets, the greed, impulsive loss of control, temper tantrums, physical abuse, domestic violence, and even scandals about adoption color the full spectrum of all the possible wrongful, unethical or even criminal behavior that our heroes-of-last-week-turned-rogues-gallery-of-today are capable of.
It's unfortunate we can be so inspired by their successes, but learn utterly nothing from their mistakes. And for us to be so unforgiving of them while we ourselves are no different in our imperfections. We lose heroes in the blink of an eye, and in the next blink realize that we are all just as fallible.
Celebrities are our "products," and we like our products to work in the way described on the box.
In recent years, "Hate sells."
Presently, "Shame sells," and we buy it too, awash in sensationalism that doesn't instruct.
If left undeciphered, there is likely to be no behavioral change - for them, or for us.
You may be privy to the age-old distinction between shame and guilt - that guilt arises from inside us and is always good, but shame comes at us from the outside and is always bad. Still, as with much of life, it's rare that our social politics can be laid out in black and white, either all good or all bad.
Guilt is emotional, and about what is wrong in what we do.
Shame is instinctual, and about what may or may not be wrong in who we are.
Maybe there's more to scapegoating, sensationalism, and scandals than meets the eye - more than just globally "good people" and "bad people," heroes of yesterday and villains of today.
Maybe instead, we could actually learn something useful from such news stories, and use it to change our lives for the better. The key may rest in the instinctual differences between men, women, and how they communicate.
As we take a look at the practical taxonomy of guilt and shame, I'd like us to consider a useful tool not so often considered: Males and females feel shame differently, and for different reasons. In the public and private dramas of life, males and females have a different experience - and a different language for explaining them. Surprisingly, some time-honored stories - classic literature and myths with male and female characters - might even color how we see this.
Public speaking may give both men and women anxiety, rejection for that dream job we both tried for may give us sadness, and a taxi driver taking us on a twenty-block ride that could have taken five blocks may make both men and women equally angry.
Guilt is also an emotion - and in both men and women alike, it arises on the inside, an anxiety response to the realization we've done wrong, whatever that wrong may be. Often happening after the fact, and with the hurt feedback of others, it will with time catch up to the point of similar bad choices, then hopefully, precede us ever making them. We learn to punish ourselves in our heads, before we ever make a mistake, and therefore before anyone else gets the chance to punish us. Our morality matures.
Think about "Doing wrong" as actually on a spectrum - from the slightest annoying act, to the offensive, to the unethical but legal, all the way up to the downright criminal. Anywhere on that spectrum, from a social faux pas to robbing a bank, guilt inside us and social or civil consequences outside us are there to serve men and women equally.
Importantly, guilt is about a specific choice, a specific occurrence or event - for without that feature we couldn't use it to grow, to forgive ourselves or see others forgive us. We have the free will to change our choices at any moment, if only we can first find insight.
Our choices - what we do, not who we are - designed to spur us to change our future choices and the interpersonal habits decisions of any given type compose. Guilt is time-limited, until the point we have:
1.) Recognized the specific wrong, most often through the feedback of others we've hurt and now empathize with.
2.) Caught ourselves about to do wrong again, but stopped ourselves before the choice, making it right this time, and...
3.) Done so enough times to now have a new social, interpersonal, preventative moral habit.
4.) Forgiven ourselves the past, and with it, shed the guilty emotion - free to live with a sense of pride and self-respect, even as we go on respecting others more, and doing more right by them.
Once durable change in our choices, habits and morality itself transforms, guilt serves no further purpose. In fact, holding onto it - or being made to hold onto it - actually does harm to society through our non-participation in it. That would be a deflation of our assertiveness in the world at large. We become captive to the ongoing anxiety in guilty feelings.
In fact, ongoing trepidation about having a voice in the world - and hesitancy about taking action in it - might be because the experience of judgment by others carries other messages besides just those about a specific event.
They often carry shame served up from those around us too.
Shame is a message that says there's not just something wrong with what we did on this occasion, but who we are.
We are talking about a different area of the mind from the emotions. We are talking about the seat of instincts, gender, and our very sense of self.
In the views of sociolinguist, Deborah Tannen, (paraphrasing) the worst thing a little boy could do to another little boy is to cut down his sense of rank or status - to win against him, defeat him, and in so doing, to limit his social permission to further take physical action in the group. This is one facet of male shame.
She goes on to say that the worst thing a little girl could do to another little girl is to exclude her - to banish her from the social circle, the circle of friends, and in so doing, from having a voice in the group. This is one facet of female shame.
These are not just experiences of inner guilt at the wrong in what we do, but shame about who we are in our gender.
It's well known that many men often shun the action of seeking out help (such as in getting depression treated), perhaps in part because it is felt as a public acknowledgment of weakness - of lesser rank or status. Better to go it alone than suffer more damage to the self. As a result, and by default, they may be complicit in denying themselves a voice of defense against the wrong done to them in gossip.
It's also well known that some women have been intimidated away from being heard - having a voice - such as defending themselves in office gossip, due to fear that their reputation might somehow be tarnished in association with the issue at hand. Better to not act than to risk more damage to the self in the form of exclusion from the group - banished from being considered, "normal." As a result, they may be complicit in denying themselves the action of defense against wrong done to them.
In the scenarios above, we might think of sensational news stories on any of a variety of celebrities.
Maybe there is a different way - rather than just watching these lurid stories as one turns back to look at a car wreck - to instead learn something from them that can be turned to a positive.
Not only are there uniquely male and female varieties of shame, but for each, two forms:
1. "Parental Shame" : a kind of shame that kindly speaks to possibilities for changing who we are toward the best we can be, or...
2. "Toxic Shame" : a kind that is inaccurate, wasteful, globally destructive for the critic and criticized alike, and offers no new behavioral lessons.
Yet when you were scolded by your mother when you were young, or when you were held back at school by a teacher, or given a negative review by a boss, you knew there was a little something they were right about, but also a little something that was more about them - and their issues - than really about you. It was confusing to wade through.
For most of us living the ordinary drama of life, "parental shame" and "toxic shame" almost never come exclusively, but as a mixture.
In The Scarlet Letter, we saw Hester Prynne socially banished - put to public shame for what she did - the action of adultery. Although her lifelong charitable work among the community of Salem attested to her good use of guilt in making new behavioral changes, she continued to wear the letter ‘A,' suffering social banishment by reputation. Still, she persisted in declaring a good and right self to the world, speaking through her deeds, and finding the gossip fade until she went to the grave. She found redemption in the power of voice against a derogatory reputation.
In The Count of Monte Cristo, we saw Edmund Dantes not socially banished, but physically imprisoned for what he said - honestly, but foolishly telling the magistrate that he had been handed a letter to deliver from the Island of Elba, and naively had not opened. Unfortunately it was from the banished Napoleon to his waiting rebels.
In this case, the man's self was not shamed and damaged in reputation or voice, but in physical imprisonment - inaction - and while incarcerated, he found redemption through learning right and savvy action under the tutelage of Priest Faria. He learned the wisdom and discernment, the shrewdness that must accompany action in a competent, adult life.
Upon his escape, Dantes had taken the lessons of guilt about his naivete surrounding the letter of the law, and transformed himself. He didn't seek revenge in "an eye for an eye" fashion, but rather in justice - guiding his betraying friends to be the agents of their own demise.
I had an interesting viewing experience watching a recent expert panel on television where the first story was about the Tiger Woods and Jesse James affairs, immediately followed by a story about singer Erykah Badu parading naked through the public streets of Dallas - the site of JFK's assassination - while filming a video. The panel was composed of three women and one man.
In the first segment, the men being judged expressed both guilt and shame, while their actions were unethical but not illegal, while the issues of the second segment (on Badu) were both unethical and illegal. Small children with their parents strolling along on a sunny day were witness to the nudity.
The conclusions of the panel were universally damning to the men, and in seconds of switching to the story on the nude singer, were universally in praise of her.
When the male moderator peeked out his head through the accolades to ask whether they thought there might be something wrong about a female exposing her body in public to small children, they quickly demoted his status as a silly voice on the panel. For in their view, yes the singer would probably have to dispense with "trivial" civil charges, but is a "strong woman exercising her voice" to make an artistic point.
I cringed as the shame spread across the male commentator's face. Clearly there is redemption in being shame-less, regardless of justifiable guilt over a specific action.
It goes for both genders too; for, many males were quick to forgive the one-time emotional rant Alec Baldwin allegedly made on the phone to his daughter, in light of his long, diligent advocacy of Father's Rights in general.
Erykah Badu transcends the rightful guilt in one wrong action through the long term good works of her artistic voice - the Hester Prynne self against feminine shame. Does she need to refrain from public nudity? Yes. But is she globally wrong and bad to the bone? No.
Alec Baldwin transcends the rightful guilt in a momentary lapse of reason through the long term good works of his actions on behalf of divorced men - the Edmund Dantes self against masculine shame. Does he need to refrain from yelling at his child? Yes. But is he globally wrong and bad to the bone in who he is? No way.
Shame is being judged as globally wrong to those outside us, and feeling bad to the bone inside.
The dramas that people find themselves in are never cut and dry, all good or all bad. They are a mixture of right and wrong, guilt and shame, destruction and redemption. Moreso, men and women clearly have different views of them, and experiences of them.
Both men and women have the experience of feeling guilty over specific actions they do, but unique ways of feeling ashamed of who they are.
Maybe there is a positive and practical way to experience being ashamed, and turn that to empowerment.
Perhaps you've heard the adage that "depression is anger turned inward." This emotional, felt experience might be something familiar for you if you have ever noticed that when you are sad, there are often reasons for it that you could just as easily get angry about. If you do so, you are much closer to taking actions that start to change your life circumstances, leading you to feel different, and not sad or depressed anymore.
What if there is a similar principle connecting shame and rage? That would be useful to know about if we were to look at how men and women experience shame differently.
Shame is not just an emotion, but an instinct compelling action, and we might actually try to envision it as rage turned inward. It is the alarm bells of our reflexes sounding - telling us that there is a threat to our very identity. Which might feel not much differently from a threat to our physical person.
It's easy to understand why we would turn outer rage to inner shame: rage is immensely powerful, and if vented in an unchecked, uncontrollable, indiscriminant way is usually met with immediate and harsh societal consequences.
I suspect both shame and rage to be two sides of the same instinctual coin. As such, rage is also felt differently by men and women, and expressed differently in kind, as the result of a cut down of masculinity and femininity, respectively.
For many men and women, it would then be a lesser of two evils to stuff rage in the form of shame - to labor on at life, ashamed and less effective in the world around us.
Let's look at two stories still older, for a gender view of masculinity, femininity, shame and rage: the stories of Echo and Narcissus.
Echo was a young maiden who had a most entertaining way about her - a gift for constant chatter and flattery, rich storytelling and a way with an audience of others. It was unfortunate that the god, Zeus, found for her, a dubious duty. He set her at the task of distracting and entertaining his wife Hera as he was out cheating on her.
Once Hera caught on to the ruse, she cursed Echo with the inability to ever have her own voice again, doomed only to repeat the words already spoken by others.
Echo is the voicelessness of female shame.
Off she went wandering in the world, until the day she encountered the astoundingly handsome young boy, Narcissus, whom was all she could ever have dreamed of in a mate.
It was said by the Oracle that if the young boy Narcissus were to "never know himself," he would live to a "ripe old age." Unfortunately that would not be the case; for as he went about his young life preoccupied in his thoughts while spurning the advances of all the girls of the world, he would come upon a pool of water.
Gazing upon it, he was mesmerized by his own handsome face, fell in love with it, and so began his preoccupation with his own potential (rather than the real world of others.) Those who do so never get around to taking actions in their lives and learning from the mistakes, and worse - from learning through the loves, rejections, agreements and differences of opinions with others. He was caught in perpetual desire for that which can never be acted upon. And so inaction, demotion and their result - impotence in the world - is an agent of male shame.
And this is where Echo first met him.
When he heard the branches snap from where she hid, spying on him, he said, "Who goes there?"
Being cursed, she could only respond, "Who goes there?"
At which he ignored her further.
On and on they go - him yearning to be with his beautiful (but not real) potential self in the reflection, and her yearning for the boy who can't hear her true voice, and so ignores her.
Until one day in a fit of rage, fed up with his inability to act, he tore his own body to shreds, the very body that he could have used to take real action with in the real world of others.
All that was left was the Narcissus flower we see growing today.
And poor Echo, her love unrequited, entreaties to her desired mate ignored in countless repetitions that were never her own voice, saw herself fade into a mist, then gone, and nothing remaining but the sound of an echo we hear today when we walk in mountains, canyons, and gorges.
These are the results of "toxic shame" on the spectrum of being ashamed - the mixture of shame gone wrong, shame heaped on us from others - who are simply "projecting" on us to make themselves feel better, more masculine or feminine through dumping their own shame on us - or the well-meaning shameful feedback which we don't have the insight to harvest the lessons of.
Narcissus was boyish, self-centered, enamored of his potential more than his real opportunities in a world of others, wasting his actions, ignorant of their benefit among others, and turned his rage inward on himself.
Echo was girlish, unwise in her chatter, mindless in blindly taking the task assigned by Zeus, and wasting her voice, not using it from a place of her own opinions and identity. As her shame grew, it consumed every bit of what had been real about her - until there was nothing left.
If shame is not about what we do, but who we are, depending on its source and our trust in it, we might very well need to change something about who we are, and benefit from that for a lifetime.
That source is a parental figure, mentor, advisor, or another person who is not projecting their own shame onto us ("toxic shame"), but chiding us to grow more mature of character in general, and more fully masculine or feminine in voice and action.
They might guide us toward insights in our wounds, using our rage as a power that can be channeled and guided to good ends, and real, personal transformation.
Wounds carry, shame, rage, and power.
If we could first learn what it means to feel ashamed, and then realize there are potential great gifts in the experience of being ashamed, we might actually discover a secret key. It is not just correcting one action of doing wrong (guilt), but a pathway to making wholesale changes in our very selves - through new general personal growth out of the girlish Echo experience and the boyish Narcissus experience.
In other words, the outer direction of rage, if properly channeled and guided, could (just as with anger) lead to a vital and energetic change in how we view ourselves, how we are seen by others, and collaborating with them, to what we are able to accomplish in the world.
To be shamed, or ashamed - whether of the good or bad kind or something in between - is to be wounded.
If we looked at wounds as not something just to be ashamed of, but full of lessons, wisdom, experience, and power, we can actually take our shame and transform it.
Two vignettes I have seen quite often in practice are interesting to look at among men and women.
In one, a young man comes in for treatment. He has been shamed by other men, one-upped in some way, whether in a physical altercation, or in the form of having a girlfriend "poached" by another man. As he works on his sense of self in therapy, he notices that by diving into physical fitness - working on his body, its strength and vitality, he feels more powerful again. He has literally taken the shame he felt and turned it into a kind of protection against future harm, a potency toward future romantic appeal through his fitness.
In another example, a young woman comes in for treatment. She has been shamed by other women, perhaps in a workplace where she has become excluded or scapegoated. Alternatively, she has been shamed when a boyfriend has cheated on her. She breaks up with him, or he with her, and begins to work on her sense of self in therapy.
But she notices that when she has had it with her "old look" - her hair and attire, and goes for a make-over in which she cuts her hair short - a new "look" energizes her, giving her a sense of shedding the past, and its shame.
In both instances, the shame experience - that there is something bad or wrong about me - actually gets used and transformed into real personal change of their physical appearance. In both cases, it is the rage at their social conditions - the flipside of shame - that powers a very real change in "who they are" physically.
It is rage channeled to just the right places.
Maybe this same effect can happen to our psychology, not just our appearance.
Let's look at two more ancient stories to that effect.
Philoctetes was a Greek warrior during the Trojan War, who had been the only man willing to light a funeral pyre for Hercules. As a result, his reward was to be given the bow and arrows of the hero. Yet on his way with the other warriors sailing to Troy to do battle, he was bitten by a snake on the foot. The wound festered and grew putrid - so much so that the sight and smell of him causes the other men to throw him off on an island.
Onward the others went to war, leaving Philoctetes out of the action, until that is, it was decreed by the Oracle that the Greeks, losing badly, could not win the war without the assistance of Philoctetes and his arrows. All the way back they had to sail, to fetch him and the special skills of this unfairly shamed, wounded man.
Only with his knowledge, experience, and the lessons of his wounds now suffered patiently for ten long years, could they win at last.
In the example of Alec Baldwin, all the personal travails of divorce, custody, juggling an acting career simultaneously, and family drama - wounds - actually lead him to have developed skills to teach, advocate, and personally master. These are his "Arrows of Hercules," and their discovery and use also raise his masculinity, and those he helps as a men's and fathers' rights advocate.
Philoctetes teaches men that with patience and durable persistence, the valuable lessons in the wounds of life can be brought to bear in their right time, with success and a benefit to both the shamed, and society too.
On the other hand, Medusa is often depicted in the negative, as a monster who turns men to stone, and who's head is cut off by the hero Perseus in his battles to save the universe.
Taking the depiction of this ancient tale still told as recently as the latest film, Clash of the Titans, we could learn more of feminine shame and its power through learning about what happens to Medusa before she becomes Medusa.
She actually starts as an extraordinarily beautiful young woman, whom is violated in a most detestable way by the god, Poseidon, in the temple of Athena - goddess of wisdom and war.
As she is assaulted, she cries out to the gods and goddesses, and none answer or come to her assistance. Later, they do take pity on her, and give her an appearance that is monstrous in appearance (to men), but exceptionally powerful - her eyes can turn men to stone (if they are so foolish or unskilled as to look in her eyes.)
Taken in a more positive and empowering way than being made monstrous by the assault, one could take note that her gaze does not look away from the eyes of men - that it in fact demands respect. It separates the boys from men - those who so insolently and arrogantly gaze in her eyes, that they are themselves shamed (turned to stone.) Yet the one man with enough savvy to not meet that fate (Perseus), has the shrewdness to not meet her gaze, but instead look at it from the reflection in his polished shield.
Taken from a more empowering viewpoint, one could see that it is not just a crafty male competence at battle that helps Perseus avoid being turned to stone, but a deep respect of the power of Medusa's gaze. Like one meeting an honored dignitary, we are careful to look away rather than arrogantly meet their gaze for too long - not out of shame or fear, but respect.
Another view of Rihanna's response to being assaulted, in which she avoids speaking for a time - avoided the public eye, and to the chagrin of those wanting an immediate statement of outrage.
One can't help noticing in the first weeks after the assault, television repeatedly showed her traumatized face - the wounded Medusa. For several more weeks hence, absent a voice - just those media echoes of the attack - she eventually chooses against the role of the voiceless Echo.
With patience and determination, a wounded woman who can bide her time, she reemerged taking actions and speaking out at the right times, not as Echo, but as the powerful version of Medusa, whose presence commands respect.
Through all future relations with men she will be able to separate out the men from the boys, turning the latter, the ones who do not pass the test of quality - mature men - to stone. She can now also teach other women how to recognize the one kind of man who is worth his salt - a Perseus who is wise enough to turn his eyes away in respect of her experience, wisdom, and power.
The man of a lifetime, the man who is able to "slay" her, as it is said we are "slain by the romantic advances" of the one whom we eventually marry. Not lesser men, and certainly not "a Poseidon."
Now we have a taxonomy of criticism to make use of in our own lives, and with which to have not just rubber-necking - sensational entertainment from the celebrity news - but actual lessons we can put to use.
In confusing, judgmental interactions with others, do you notice you ever feel like a Hester Prynne? An Edmund Dantes? An Echo, a Narcissus? And if so, can you find your way to the power of the wounds, in a Philoctetes or Medusa?
If you are feeling accused, shamed, guilted or criticized, you are receiving a mixed bag of messages to sort through, but actions to take on each:
1. Guilt - you feel this regarding a specific thing on a specific occasion in which you've done wrong, and violated your own moral code. It's about what you do, not who you are.
Maybe you were unaware of it being wrong, or maybe you knew it even so, but had a lapse of reason and self-control. You got feedback about how it hurt someone else, and since you feel empathy for them - would not want to feel the way they do - you decide on purpose to change your ways.
You forgive yourself, make amends, ask forgiveness, and on future instances that resemble the guilty action, you strive to make different, more positive, constructive choices.
Then you drop the guilt. It doesn't serve you, or others, anymore.
2. Toxic Shame - This is feedback not about what you do on specific occasions, but who you are. You feel this heaped on you from the outside, from someone whom is not your friend, advocate, parent, mentor, or whom in any way wishes you wellness, growth, forgiveness and mutual prosperity. It doesn't feel related to either the details of what you do or who you are. It is due to miscommunication, interpretation, or an outright attempt of another person to project their own shame onto you, as an easy target or scapegoat.
Toxic shame is never good, never useful to you or society. It doesn't correct wrongs, or make for new behavior or growth. It is always destructive, never constructive, and doesn't offer any lessons for change. To your sense of self, it is senseless damage for the sake of damage.
You feel made to be like Echo if you are a woman, stripped of a voice, or banished from the group, like Hester Prynne, to wander the world as an outcast.
You feel made to be like Narcissus if you are a man, held back from realizing your potential, stripped of action or rank or status, socially held back because you didn't notice there's a big wide world around you to participate in. You may be subject to the goals or desires of someone else - like a cruel employer - not your own, imprisoned like Edmund Dantes from being free to have a positive impact on the world. And one unique to you and only you.
Reject the feedback, and avoid the party who issued it. You will sense in the foreignness of their accusations that the conflict is more about them than about you. They are denying themselves the facing of their own shame by projecting it onto you, and won't be fit as a friend, mentor, partner or colleague for a very long time, if ever.
3. Parental (Positive) Shame - This is also feedback about who you are and what needs to change, but it comes from a place of mentorship, love, parentalism, and a wish to see you improve in who you are in your personal growth and character.
Here is where the real power comes if you are open to it. It's not always that an actual parent or advocate is doing all the criticizing in our lives. Often that comes from strangers, non-intimates, even from enemies.
The key is to see through what is guilt over a specific event, what is toxic shame that really belongs to them, and what you yourself could be your own mentor, parent, and advisor about.
It is the criticism and insight given by Priest Faria to Edmund Dantes in the prison.
If you know that the shame you feel has some element of truth in it, you could also take on the parental role for yourself. Much like the young man who takes his rage to the gym to better his fitness, or the young woman who takes her rage to the salon to better her appearance, you could transform your rage through a similar process of personal growth on that aspect of who you are.
As a college roommate once said, "There's no better revenge than looking good." That same advice might be said of the mind, the character and the constitution.
You would find power and shed the shame through directing its flipside - rage against the right things: the addiction you know you have, the lack of empathy, the disloyalty, the impulsiveness in your money management, the foolishness in conversation, the trepidation about speaking out, the disrespect of yourself or others, the penchant for revenge rather than justice and forgiveness, and all the other features of character we can all improve on.
If you take feedback and transform it to real changes in who you are - but only according to what you know about yourself that does need to change - there is no more shame in that. You won't be thoughtlessly following the roles and identity someone else assigns to you like Zeus did to Echo. You won't be refusing any and all feedback, passively gazing on at life, and not participating in it, like Narcissus.
Instead of the voicelessness of being an Echo, the futility of being a Narcissus, the imprisonment of an Edmund Dantes or the banishment of a Hester Prynne, you'll have discovered the respect and power of a Medusa, or the winner's patience, competence and effectiveness of Philoctetes' Arrows of Hercules.
Guilt will guide what you do, toxic shame will tell you something of the wounds of others, so that you might someday forgive and empathize, and parental shame will guide becoming a better you.
You'll be living, guilt-free, shameless, and growing better every day.