Despite their resemblance, I propose that guilt and shame are two related processes that have entirely different impacts on a person’s psyche. In a nutshell, guilt is external, whereas shame is internal; guilt comes from others, and shame comes from within; guilt is a means of control, and shame is a means of redemption. Let’s review the two emotions independently, and then investigate how they’re related.
We will begin with guilt, as it perhaps the more common experience of the two. Guilt is a profound feeling of regret for actions/thoughts that violated a social (society, family, etc.) framework of morality. In other words, it’s a feeling that indicates the disapproval of others. A great exposition of guilt is the ever-popular ‘guilt trip.’ A guilt trip, essentially, is a feeling induced by others for not complying with their demands; it’s a means of control, to ensure you stay on their path. Although guilt often carries with negative connotations, it’s a developmental necessity. Imagine, if you will, a child who regularly steals the toys of his classmates. If the child’s parents leave such behavior unpunished, he/she will carry on this illicit behavior to the detriment of others. Thus, guilt is a tool parents use to teach their children right from wrong, as their rational faculties have not yet developed sufficiently to understand the consequences of their actions. In case you haven’t noticed, the word “children” is in italics, and for good reason; unfortunately, guilt today is often used as a means to control teenagers and adults, rather than addressing their now-developed rational faculties directly. Essentially, it should be used as means to inculcate a certain moral framework in a child, whose cognitive faculties (intellectual and rational thought) are too underdeveloped to appreciate the reasoning behind it. Teenagers, on the other hand, have developed their cognitive capacity; this is why teenagers often feel like their parents treat them like children when they’re made to feel guilty. The teenager feels bad, sure, but not for any reason that originated from themselves.
Shame, on the other hand, is a sincere emotional reaction that originates from within. Essentially, a person commits an action that is inherently incompatible with whom they are, or whom they want to be. This could comprise of any behavior that affects the individual exclusively (i.e. drinking alcohol) or other people/creatures (i.e. hurting someone in a fit of rage). The examples are many, but the key focus here is on the source of the emotion; when the action is committed, the feeling of shame arises without the need of another’s evaluation. This feeling of shame is a core emotion, just like sadness, anger, and fear, which God created us with that serves an adaptive purpose. Emotional therapists assert that the purpose of shame is reconciliation and reunion; a feeling much more profound than the guilt experienced from “lack of approval.” Indeed, imagine the last time you hurt someone you love, an action that you soon regretted very dearly; the emotional experience of shame drove you to apologize to that person immediately. In this case, you didn't apologize for their approval, but rather because you felt deeply remorseful for your behavior (the close relationship between guilt and shame will be described in the next section).
Evolutionary scholars often discuss shame as a communal advantage; a process that, over millennia, adapted to ensure intra-group harmony. I would argue, however, that shame is a God-given emotion that not only directs our emotional relationship with others, but towards God as well. In an Islamic moral framework, feelings of shame should arise beyond the sake of the community. Take negligence with prayer for example, a sin that has no effect on others, but one that may produce a profound feeling of shame – a desire to reconnect with God.
What is the relationship between shame and guilt? And isn't God just a means of ‘guilt’?
Some people argue that shame towards God is just another form of guilt (technically, it is God who will judge us), and thus it does not really originate from within. Although convenient, I would argue that the premise is inherently false based upon the process through which shame develops. The relationship between guilt and shame is interesting, and it’s clear that they’re not mutually exclusive phenomena. Obviously, as children, we acquire moral values as modeled by the main actors in our social environment (primarily parents, of course, but I wanted to leave the door open for other possibilities, such as grandparents, teachers, etc., based upon circumstance). These values are communicated to us either directly or indirectly, and eventually become the moral compass by which we guide our behavior. Our fitrah, or our natural inclination towards good and truth, subsequently becomes skewed as a result of our ecological context. Thus, it’s our social environment that lays out the blueprint upon which our moral framework is constructed. Afterwards, we’re only able to question the moral framework when we finally reach an age with a sufficiently developed cognitive faculty (obviously, not everyone chooses to question their moral upbringing for countless of psychological, emotional and rational reasons). Ultimately, whatever our social context makes us feel guilty about in our upbringing is what dictates our feelings of shame later in life, unless we question the moral framework upon which the guilt was established when we’re older.
In the case of God’s moral framework, one must perhaps make a distinction between adults who have accepted His moral framework to be true, as opposed to those who didn't In the first case it’s clear: if someone acknowledges the truth of God’s existence as an adult (in Islam’s case, by means of the Quran’s and the Prophet Mohamed’s veracity), then the regret that results from sin is a sincere feeling of shame that intends to reconnect that person with God, for they believe that the sin in-and-of-itself is evil. If, on the other hand, the religious framework has not been internalized, and it’s instead imposed upon the adolescent/adult by their social environment (parents, friends, mosques, etc.), then sinning may only result in feelings of guilt; an externally-induced emotion which the individual may not necessarily agree with or understand, but feels bad due to the social environment’s consequential lack of approval.
Why is the difference between guilt and shame so important?
Relating all of this back to the Muslim community, we begin to understand what happens when parents, friends, and mosques invoke the power of ‘guilt’ to control/raise an adolescent “islamically.” As we continue to control our adolescents by means of guilt, we often distance them even further from our advice and consultation. This creates the most common catch-22 I've noticed among Muslim parents: their teen misbehaves, so they try to control them (“Don’t go out to bars! Don’t date that girl!”) with the noble intentions of raising a ‘practicing’ adolescent, which causes the teen to distance themselves even further from their parents (naturally, there was no impact on their misbehavior . The parents then repeat the same process all over again. Little do the parents realize, however, that the time for guilt is gone – and shame should take center-stage. We should start teaching our adolescents/young adults moral values in a manner that befits their intellectual capacity, in order to encourage understanding and, subsequently, internalization. Ideally, this is a process that should have started long ago, but unfortunately many parents are oblivious to the Islamic moral framework until, of course, their child grows up to do things the parents are too ashamed to admit.
Unfortunately, in my experiences with adolescents, guilt only serves to scare them away even further from Islam. Instead, adolescents should ideally be spoken to in a manner that facilitates an understanding of the moral framework, including why perhaps a certain moral framework is better than others. This way, we’re attending to - and hopefully cultivating - their feelings of shame.
Take-home point: leave guilt for children, and focus on shame for adolescents and adults.