What are shame, guilt and judgement and how do they affect us? Let’s start by defining each:
Judgement: Judgement is perhaps the easiest of the three to define or at least to understand. When we judge—a situation, another person, or even ourselves—we are evaluating that object (and we do make them or it an object) according to some belief about the way they or it should be, or behave, or act. Judging is an act of making the object wrong—according to some usually unspoken or unrecognized standard. The standard may be a law or regulation, but more often judgement is according to our own internal beliefs about the way things should be. More about these internal beliefs in a minute.
Guilt: Guilt is another layer of emotion on top of a judgement—which is almost always about ourselves. Guilt is one of the ways in which we berate ourselves for what we have felt, or said, or done. Guilt differs from sorrow. Guilt is inwardly directed; sorrow is outwardly directed. When we feel guilty about something, that is a feeling about ourselves. When we feel sorrow, we are focused on the other. We are expressing a form of compassion for what happened to the other. In guilt, we “feel bad” for ourselves; in sorrow, we “feel bad” for the other.
Shame: When we feel shame, we’ve heaped another layer of judgement and emotion on what we said, did, or thought. We feel shame when we believe we’ve violated a moral code of behavior of some sort: of honor, of sexuality, or of courage, for example.
What all three have in common is that they result from a violation of a belief we hold about what is expected of us. Almost always, these beliefs are imposed upon us—from the society we were born in, from our family, from our religion, from our cultural heritage, etc.—all the constellations of thought forms we find ourselves in when we enter this Earthly plane—that is, when we are born.
After birth, we create new beliefs in addition to those we came into this life with. These beliefs result from our experiences, and from the conclusions we draw from those experiences. The imposition comes from the mind’s assessing of what it believes it observed, and then using these conclusions to determine future behavior and responses to what it—again—perceives as similar circumstances.
So, what are beliefs? Why do they seem to be so absolute? A belief is a thought which has been “frozen.” Thoughts pass through us constantly; some we hold onto, others we let go. But when we hold onto a thought and make it our own, it becomes frozen in time. A thought is no more than an energy pattern that moves through us. A belief then becomes a crystallization of a thought, or thoughts, which we can refer back to and use to manage our lives.
When we crystallize a thought into a belief, we have imposed a limitation on our experience of what is actually happening around us. When we are sure we know—that is, when we “believe”—we are no longer open to any new information that may be contained in the situation. In other words, beliefs are little boxes that we believe allow us to control and structure all that is around us. They act as short-hand notations for understanding, but in fact, they are short-hand notations for mis-understanding because they shut out the possibility of additional information. We no longer have the choice of different responses.
So, what does all of this have to do with shame, guilt, and judgement? Let’s ask another question first: Is judgement a necessary function of life—or life on this planet? Let’s talk about discernment first, and the difference between discernment and judgement. Discernment is the ability to notice differences, characteristics, qualities—without labeling them right or wrong, good or bad, etc. Judgement, on the other hand, does just this: it labels things as right or wrong, good or bad, etc. A discerning assessment of a situation, a person, or ourselves is a much more open and involving process, whereas a judgement of that situation, person, or ourselves is operating from a position imposing a predetermined standard that then has the effect of shutting out new information that might lead to very different conclusions.
To me, discernment is a very necessary quality of living successfully on this planet. It’s what enables us to experience life as it is fully. Judgement, on the other hand, limits that experience and can lead to highly inaccurate conclusions about a person, situation, or even ourselves. As a simple example, you’re driving on the freeway. All of a sudden a car swerves in front of you to take the next exit that just came up. You get angry at the other driver for being so thoughtless or stupid or reckless. You’ve made a judgement. What if you knew that the passenger in the other car was having a heart attack or just entered labor prematurely, and that this was the closest exit to the nearest hospital/emergency room? Your conclusions would have been very different (most likely). Discernment opens you to this possibility. Judgement closes off your consideration of other possibilities.
Returning to shame, guilt and judgement, we’ve seen that shame and guilt are emotional responses to judgement and to (possibly unexamined) beliefs. What if you relaxed your beliefs? What if you allowed the possibility that you can’t possibly know everything about a given moment or person or situation? Would you be so likely to judge? Or would you be open to the possibility of so much more in the situation than you could possibly see with the five senses? And if you did this, would you be as likely to feel shame or guilt?
My sense is that, in any given situation, you would be so much more interested in all that was flowing to you about the situation or person—through your five senses and through all the other ways you take in information—that, at the least, you wouldn’t have time to feel guilt or shame. What you might discern, however, is that there are other responses or actions that you could have taken, and that perhaps something else would have been more appropriate. You also would be in a much more open position to see and act upon the situation much more differently.
This is a pretty esoteric discussion, so let’s consider a real example or two. Suppose you are with friends and some friends of theirs enter the room. They have just adopted a small child and are ecstatic about the child. They want everyone to hold the child and to share their enthusiasm. You, on the other hand, are uncomfortable around small children and don’t really want to hold the child because you feel it is messy or some other excuse. How do you handle that? Well, you could excuse yourself to use the bathroom, or you could move to the back of the room, or you might even say something about your discomfort with small children.
For some of us, that might lead to a feeling of guilt for not sharing in the parent’s enthusiasm, or even shame at actually expressing your discomfort with small children. On the other hand, suppose you didn’t immediately respond to your inclinations to move away from the small child, but instead opened yourself to the possibility that there are many things you can experience from a small child besides their messiness or crying or whatever your discomfort arises from. You might discover that this child, too, is messy or cries, or you might discover that this child is different. Or, you might discover something totally different about small children that you never knew before because you have avoided them in the past.
Life is a series of never-ending experiences. If you have pre-judged what these experiences are or will be, you have cut yourself off from living. You have stopped moving and growing. Any organism that stops moving and growing eventually dies—if not physically, then in other ways. Your life becomes a boring repetition of itself—a form of Groundhog Day.
So, if you learn to substitute discernment for judgement, with all the openness and possibilities that discernment implies, will you never experience shame and guilt? I don’t really know the answer to that question, but I suspect you will have much less shame and guilt in your life.
What do you think? As always, your comments and observations are very welcome.