Guilt and shame seem to describe the same human condition. Both reactions arise from having done something wrong. According to the experts, however, the two are different. Guilt is a response to a specific action, an event external to an individual. Stealing a cookie from a shop evokes guilt, for example. Being external, the deed is repairable. One goes back to the shop and pays for the sweet. Shame, on the other hand, is an internal reflex, the private acknowledgement people feel when they know they have let themselves down. (“For SHAME,” BY Diane Kwon, Scientific American Mind, May/June, 2016 pg. 67.)
When shame becomes publicly exposed, it “triggers a deluge of painful consequences that in no way ensures people will mend their ways,” including anger, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. (Ibid pg. 67.) Private shame, however, particularly if a person sees an opportunity to right the wrong “is a strong motivator for good behavior” and is more apt to induce a desire for change than guilt. (Ibid pg. 67.)
Surprisingly, sarcasm is a form of public shaming that, if done with a light touch or humor, has a positive effect. One benefit is creativity. (“The Surprising Benefits of Sarcasm,” by Francesca Gino, Scientific American Mind, May/June 2016, pgs. 20-21.) Researchers have found that in a sarcastic exchange, the mind is focused and this greater clarity leads to greater creativity. (Ibid pg. 21.) Or, as Oscar Wilde once observed, “It is the critical spirit that creates.” (Ibid pg. 20.) Of course, this form of conversation is more palatable between people who trust one another, but even in these circumstances, sarcasm should be used sparingly for the sake of the relationship.
The more we learn about ourselves, we come to appreciate that as a species we are complex, full of dark and light mater which is interchangeable, depending upon circumstances. Even our existence depends upon a duality. As individuals, we are bent upon personal survival. Yet given our frailty, we survive best in societies. Guilt, shame, these tools have no meaning to the hermit but in a society, they are strings that both limit and secure the boundaries of human conduct. As individuals we are always engaged in finding the delicate balance between satisfying our wishes and conforming to standards for the good of the whole. What a daunting task for creatures who know little of themselves.
If I ruled the world, I’d decree we show to ourselves and others more compassion. Our society is too much awash in moral righteousness for my taste.