Jill and Sharon (not their real names) worked on the same projects in close proximity to each other in a relatively small office. Their work was very pressured with one tight deadline to meet after another. Small wonder that the two of them were continually treading on each others toes and from time to time, the very palpable tension between them would boil over into heated arguments.
One day they had such a fierce confrontation that if they hadn’t been the mature adults that they were, it might very easily have become physical.
The next day, Jill didn’t report for duty. Neither was she at work on the following day – nor the one after that. When her boss and her fellow workers made enquiries, they discovered that for some time she had been suffering, on and off, from a serious illness that she had hidden from everyone.
When Sharon learned of this, she almost went out of her mind. The last spat between the two of them kept replaying itself in her head. Maybe she was responsible for the sudden deterioration in her co-worker’s health? Even assuming that the disease had been afflicting Jill for a long time already, perhaps Sharon’s biting sarcasm and the force of her anger had weakened Jill further and made the condition worse?
It took many soothing words, a great deal of patience and hours of gentle explanation on the part of Sharon’s sympathetic but firm husband to get her eventually to snap out of her alternating hysteria and depression. He repeated over and over again that while the unkind words both Sharon and her colleague had hurled at each other were certainly not to be condoned, it was unreasonable and illogical to accept blame for Jill’s deteriorating health.
Most importantly, explained Sharon’s husband, the overpowering feeling of guilt that was driving her to distraction every moment of the day was preventing her from functioning properly and was serving no one’s interests – not hers and certainly not Jill’s.
Two month’s ago I posted a piece I called Shame Should Be a Badge of Honor, which somehow hit a raw nerve for many and attracted a lot of interest. I decried the lack of healthy shame in today’s society, a lack which leads to people committing dishonest, indecent, immoral and unethical acts under the public gaze in broad daylight without as much as batting an eyelid.
In it’s purest form, shame is a positive, healthy phenomenon. It is rooted in the desire for self-improvement and involves working with the intellect. It’s all about personal responsibility, and is an elevating experience that provides an impetus for growth and promotes human dignity. It ultimately leads to enhanced interpersonal relationships.
Irrational Guilt, on the other hand – in the sense that I’m talking about here – is not about self-control, but rather the reverse. It’s a debilitating and even crippling experience that erodes self-esteem and has no positive outcome. It’s not about the intellect. It’s about the heart ruling the head in the most negative sense.
In the end, rather than bringing people closer to their fellows, it creates barriers between them. This is surely a point of crucial significance.
In practice, how do we ensure that positive shame will never degenerate into irrational guilt? Sometimes it’s far from easy, as we see from Sharon’s unfortunate episode. In extreme cases, professional help may be required, especially when recurring guilt feelings are precipitated by one or more traumatic incidents in a person’s past life.
Generally speaking, though, there’s one yardstick that’s useful in many different situations in determining whether a certain feeling, state of mind, or attitude is positive and constructive or unhealthy and destructive. What we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves the following question:
“Honestly, what’s motivating me? Is it my ego or am I motivated by a sincere interest in the the party I’m involved with or in the people around me?”
Azriel Winnett is the author of the highly acclaimed, eye-opening book How to Build Relationships That Stick. An enhanced edition is now available as a paperback.