Shame and Guilt

THE Grant Hackett interview on the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes made me contemplate shame versus guilt. One has conscience one doesn’t.

As most people know by now, Hackett talked of his terrible embarrassment at trashing his home, and what has amounted to sabotaging his career, marriage and reputation so publicly.

As I watched, I wondered what exactly it was that was shaming him. Was it his actions? Was he ashamed of acting out so violently? Or rather the fact that socially he was now a pariah and seen in a poor light?

Which got me wondering about the difference between shame and guilt. As a chronic sufferer of guilt, I tried to break down the thin line that divides the two feelings. I’m constantly stalked by guilt. My favourite form of self-torment is that I’m not a good enough mother. I don’t want to debate whether I am or not, just that I tend to focus on my inadequacies, not my triumphs, when it comes to parenting. I also feel profound guilt if I don’t call my own mother, or if I hurt someone, or am not there for a friend in need.

Guilt is a normal part of being Jewish, as in the cliche of the Jewish mother’s brainwashing of her son: ‘‘I’ll die and you’ll be sorry!’’ coupled with our genetic pre- disposition to negative self-talk. Which is very different from shame, derived from being seen to have done the wrong thing. Shame, like embarrassment, comes from earning social disapproval, and is usually based on early conditioning by parents, teachers and priests. Because I tend to stumble along without much to what people think of me, shame is far less an issue. When I ran my sex program on Triple M radio, I earned the antipathy of the then Howard government. I was named and disgraced in parliament for daring to air issues in society that were never discussed. I felt no shame at all. Just anger at the hypocrisy.

But millions do feel shame. The whole new social phenomenon of Facebook posts, which can cause social mockery based on naming and shaming, is now considered bullying and there’s finally a backlash against such damaging behaviour.

Back to Hackett. I don’t mean to imply guilt is a better emotion than shame, or that it’s healthy. Guilt corrodes the insides more than drinking acid. But it shows a conscience, whereas shame tends to show a need for acceptance — which is in fact necessary for social species such as humans, elephants, or apes, whose members need each other to survive in the wild. But I believe it lacks self-awareness.

Does Grant also feel guilty for his aggressive actions? We may never know. But it strikes me as being at the crux of whether he’ll be truly forgiven or not.

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5 Responses to Shame and Guilt

  1. Ruth Ostrow 16 July 2012 at 8:20 pm #

    LOL thanks George 🙂

  2. george riszko 12 July 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    Dear Ms Ostrow,

    Congarulations on your insightful article. Such maturity and clarity of thought for someone so young!

    Being the product of a mixed marriage, (no prizes for guessing which half was Jewish), I find it comforting to think that my guilt trips have more to do with conscience than shame. I never thought of it in those terms before.

    Many thanks

    George Riszko

  3. lilian 10 July 2012 at 1:29 pm #

    Great column on Hacket. He is the epitomy of a damaged man, too much drink, probably uppers and adulation. I pity his wife and kid, not him, they bear the mental scars. Love your articles .Yoshi

  4. Kim Oxley 9 July 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    My 15 yr old daughter suffered a hideous experience last year, that has left me considering both shame and guilt, from a mother’s point of view. Like you Ruth, I constantly feel like I could be a far wiser mother. I don’t have the Jewish heritage – just the nagging sense of never doing a good enough job. You raise a topical issue regarding Hackett, and I wondered what that interview was really achieving for him. For myself, I keep wondering – if I had specific time over, if I’d made the right decisions, the post traumatic stress of it all wouldn’t be keeping me awake nights.

  5. nomadd 9 July 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    Sorry Ruth,
    I have never heard of Grant Hackett, this is because I never watch 60 minutes, which I consider a tripe program, very similar to the now vanquished, gutter newspaper ” The News of the World.”
    I know millions of the brain washed people view such programs. However, I will never understand why they do so. Perhaps they have nothing better to do with their time.
    Indeed, I do not spend much time at all watching TV, and when I do so I tend to watch the BBC programs for their much superior standard of production.
    Silk, Grand Designs and Dr Who are my favourites, which are excellent in quality.
    The rest of my time is engaged in reading non fiction books.
    Unfortunately, in these current times in the Western world there are hordes of people trying to stifle comment of any sort.
    Not a day passes without some action being attempted to stop a person expressing what they really and truly believe in.
    Nevertheless, I am not afraid to say what I think and care less about the people I trample on.
    Unlike you Ruth I never feel ashamed, nor guilt at my actions, or what I say.
    That is because I am a survivor.

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