Anger, Guilt and Shame

Many emotional states we habitually describe as feelings are actually closely bound up with judgmental thinking. Anger, guilt and shame certainly fall into this category. These are not what one might call ‘pure’ feelings, like sadness, grief or joy; they are emotions contaminated with right-wrong thinking. There is a social or moral dimension to guilt, shame and ‘righteous’ anger, which has been promoted by the great monotheistic religions since their founding and is the basis of the criminal justice system today. Anger, guilt and shame are intrinsically involved with the practices of judging, blaming and punishing.

Anger and all its associates, such as annoyance, irritation, fury, aggravation, disgust etc – includes a moral judgment that someone is ‘wrong’ or ‘at fault’. There may be a welcome release of tension when we explode in anger, but it isn’t really much fun in itself, and it tends to have dire consequences for our social relations. 

Guilt is the same blame + pain combo as anger, but turned inwards instead of outwards. It’s the way we criticize and judge ourselves in relation to our actions. Guilt is there whenever we tell ourselves “I shouldn’t have done that”, “I was wrong to speak when I did” and so on. Guilt tends to linger inside us, maybe for months and years, wherease the flare of anger tends to burn out more quickly. If we are frequently feeling guilty about something, then it is likely there will also be shame connected with the guilt.

Shame is how we beat ourselves up not just about ‘what we did wrong’ but about ‘who we are’. In short, we tell ourselves “I’m a bad person” or “I’m not good enough”. It’s more insidious than guilt: harder to acknowledge, harder to let go of and even longer lasting. It may be created or reinforced by others ‘shaming’ us, but it’s still part of our personal journey. Fuelling the shame there is always (in my experience so far) a core belief: a negative conclusion about ourselves or about reality, usually formed in early childhood.

Explore The History of Anger, Guilt and Shame

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