Guilt, Shame, & Personal Accountability

“Fight against yourself, recover yourself to decency, to modesty, to freedom. …And, in the first place, condemn your actions; but when you have condemned them, do not despair of yourself.

“For both ruin and recovery are from within.”

~Epictetus, Discourses, Ch. 9

     People can feel shame without taking accountability. This also means people can take accountability without feeling shame. Shame and guilt should not be confused. Guilt has restorative properties and always contains a means of penance; of ways to make right our wrong doing and seek forgiveness. Guilt is inherently external: Focused on what we have done; not on who we are.
     Shame, on the other hand, does not call us to restoration or community. Instead, it calls us to isolation and focuses on who we are rather than what we have done. This is a terrific topic and a great book on the topic is called “Guilt and Shame”. There is a link to it in the Book List, and I recommend it. However, for now, what is important is knowing the distinction between guilt (healthy response to a wrong doing) and shame (unhealthy judgment about our personhood).
     Though shame and guilt are very different, they do have one thing in common: personal accountability. The quote from Epictetus should not be read to mean that success or failure lies within us. “Both ruin and recovery are from within.” The decision to take responsibility for our actions, and thereby have the power to do something about them, lies within us. If we feel guilt, if we feel shame, yet believe there is nothing we can do, that circumstances were in control of our lives, well then we are utterly powerless and we may as well fall into despair. Some believe this is a freeing concept, that if our fate lies in the stars instead of ourselves, we are free of condemnation. Yet this idea does not explain away our guilt or shame.
     Passing the buck and blaming others for your situation, even if it is an accurate perception, does little to empower us, change the situation, or help heal relationships. However, taking an earnest look at ourselves, allowing trusted friends and advisers to reflect back to us who we are, begins the process of personal accountability. This is one way shame can be converted to proper guilt. That we can begin distinguishing between who we are and what we do. When this happens, we can begin personally being accountable for our actions without allowing those actions to define us.
     Leave a comment about a time you wrestled with shame or guilt. How did you handle it? Were you able to take personal responsibility?

Hear no, See no, They did it.

(C) Nathan D. Croy