Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Guilt, The Voice Of Conscience

Human Behaviour

“Guilt is a personal phenomenon. It has nothing to do with what others might say if they knew what we have done, and everything to do with what we say to ourselves. Guilt is the voice of conscience, and it is inescapable. You may be able to avoid shame by hiding or not being found out, but you cannot avoid guilt. Guilt is self-knowledge.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
“The Scapegoat: Shame and Guilt (Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 5775),”
April 20, 2015

Wheel of Conscience: Joanna Smith of The Toronto Star writes: “Steve Markus and his wife, Marta, look for family names on a sculpture called the Wheel of Conscience at Pier 21 in Halifax. The monument commemorates Canada’s decision to turn away a ship carrying Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939.” But the public does not today have access to the memorial piece, which was designed by Daniel Libeskind, himself a child of Holocaust survivors,. The same article says that after being sent out for repairs, the monument has been sitting in a warehouse in Toronto.
Photo Credit: Andrew Vaughan: CP
Source: Toronto Star

Guilt is unpleasant. It has often been deemed counter-productive and a label of religious judgment, an old idea that has no proper place in the modern world. So, the complex human emotion that has often led to positive change in human behaviour is no longer deemed acceptable in some quarters. Everyone and everything, with few exceptions, now in some way, and by some use of internal logic, is justified; and self-doubt and lack of self-assurance is considered counterproductive to achievements of success.

Yet, was it not Freud who said that guilt can be a moderating influence on social behaviour; and that feelings of guilt can lead to regret and self-reflection?  One reason that people want to deny guilt’s place in society, other than the obvious reason of inconvenient truths, is that  guilt is often mixed up with shame, another powerful human emotion, which has no positive benefits.

In an article (“Guilt can do good;” November 2005) on the site of the American Psychological Association, J. Daw Holloday makes a good distinction between the two powerful and similar emotions:
The difference between the two emotions is best described as public and private, according to June Tangney, PhD, a George Mason University psychology professor and author of several books on moral emotions.
“You feel shame when others know what you’ve done; you feel guilt when only you know,” she said in an invited address at APA’s 2005 Annual Convention. “When people feel shame, they focus on the self--they often feel powerless, worthless or exposed,” she explained. “When people feel guilt, they tend to focus on behavior. Guilt is more proactive.”
In her research, Tangney has found that guilt goes with empathy, and shame goes with anger. “Shame-prone people are more prone to anger and don’t manage their anger constructively,” she noted. Shame, she added, is associated with virtually every DSM disorder.
Does the long-term holding in of unexpressed, unrepentant guilt also lead to mental problems? I think so. How about self-justification of unethical, illegal or immoral behaviour? I also think so. For an excellent peer-reviewed article on moral emotions and moral behaviour, including the difference between guilt and shame, see here. (“Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior,” by June Price Tangney; U.S. Library of Medicine)

Judaism, like many moral religions, views guilt as a necessary emotional corrective on human behaviour. Guilt is good, but one should not wallow in it. As one site ( puts it: “Guilt is good! Lingering guilt is not. Guilt is to the soul what pain is to the body.” No normal person likes pain, but pain is a message that something is wrong with our bodies, our minds, our souls. Guilt acts as the friend that does the hard job of telling undesirable but necessary truths. Not happily welcome, but welcome, nevertheless.

Yet, children, including teenagers, are today given excessive protection from such value judgments, lest their developing psyche (or minds or brains) become scarred, or damaged beyond repair. Or so, says much of parenting magazines and sites. Does it not start with child rearing? Is anti-social behaviour the products of bad parenting? Unlikely, but parents who spare children from such lessons might be sparing them from something that they will have to learn as adults.

It is also true that genetics has a different story to tell, giving some reasons why some children turn out as anti-social adults, why some become sociopaths and psychopaths. Some persons, for reasons that are not completely known and understood, have greater resiliency to bad events, to hard knocks and to failures that beset humans. Long-term anger might be the result of failing to admit wrong or of deep feelings of shame. Anger is also a complex human emotion, and an unpleasant one, too. The key is to understand the roots of such anger.

It is true that some people have an overactive conscience and are weighed down by guilt, feeling guilty for the collective sins of others. While others have none, shut off from any self-doubt, seen as a form of weakness and a denial of their desires for power. This does necessarily equate with sound mental health; it could actually show an inability to admit wrong-doing, the opposite of good mental health.  This also might reflect a society that punishes such revelations of wrong-doing, even if the infractions are deemed minor. A society that punishes candor (to the point of shame) ensures that such admissions of guilt become rare. The harsher the punishment, the less possibility of candor.

So, given such cultural norms or rules, it is not surprising that such “open” and self-aware people are rarely seen at the pinnacles of power; such self-correcting behaviour, such periods of self-doubt would likely work against achieving such positions of power. Ideally, admissions of guilt would be followed by actions of forgiveness.

It is important to discuss openly the difference between guilt and shame, the latter destructive and the former a necessary self-corrective to societal improvement. Guilt is the quiet friend of sympathy and empathy. A society that allows open, sincere and genuine admissions of guilt—and its corollary, forgiveness— is much more healthier than one than does not.

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