I know a man who says to his daughter: “You should be ashamed of yourself” when he wants to imbue some good habits in her. One example would be not putting her dirty socks in the laundry basket. It might seem trivial, but I don’t think it is. I feel that shame is a toxic element of our personalities. I believe shame results in negative consequences, such as sabotaging oneself and health problems.
Many spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, perceive guilt as a trigger for moral development. The rational is, when we feel bad about something we had done, we will change our behaviour for better. The question is: how bad exactly are we supposed to feel, both in terms of quality and quantity of that feeling?
In terms of quantity, I think it is clear that too much guilt can be so overwhelming as to become debilitating. Crushed by the sense of unworthiness caused by shame we prefer to give up altogether than to do anything about our past mistakes or future endeavours.
As for the quality of the guilt, there is a difference between beating ourselves up over what we have done and intending to make amends and transform ourselves. It is obvious which is more productive.
This is how it is put in Sankha Sutta (SN 42.8) in relation to one of the Precepts – abstaining from taking life. The same words are applied to every other Precept. (Italics are mine.)
A disciple has faith in that teacher and reflects: ‘The Blessed One in a variety of ways criticizes and censures the taking of life, and says, “Abstain from taking life.” There are living beings that I have killed, to a greater or lesser extent. That was not right. That was not good. But if I become remorseful for that reason, that evil deed of mine will not be undone.’ So, reflecting thus, he abandons right then the taking of life, and in the future refrains from taking life. This is how there comes to be the abandoning of that evil deed. This is how there comes to be the transcending of that evil deed.
In Buddhism, there are notions of “conscience”, “moral shame”, and “moral dread” even. These notions apply strictly to the dread one feels at this present moment about causing harm to oneself and other sentient beings. It is never used to force practitioners to obsess about the past. The Precepts that a Buddhist practitioner takes up are calls to be mindful of one’s action here and now and to direct them towards a desired moral ideal.
In this light, I could not be happier that Buddhist practice is seeping into popular psychology. Psychologists suggest techniques such as “observing” and separating the feeling from the observer in dealing with guilt.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes that when giving instruction to his son Rahula, the Buddha encouraged him to feel shame for the actions that were beneath his honour, not for himself. This is because the Buddha and his son were both male members of the warrior caste. The sense of dignity and honour was bestowed on them by birth. Consequently, they had psychological resources to prevent an indiscretion or two from destroying their sense of self-worth.
And here we come to the feminist issue. In our patriarchal society women are decidedly denied inherent sense of self-worth. Women are taught they are only as good as they are attractive and useful to men. Therefore the sense of fear is imbued in women, telling them that something is wrong with them.
Psychologically speaking, guilt is considered a form of fear in Buddhism: fear of admonition, punishment, (including self-admonition), and of bad rebirths. Women feel shame for anything from menstruating to not being successful.
Women cannot do right. If she is beautiful, she should be more beautiful. If she is attractive, she cannot become less attractive with age. Society will find a way to peck at a woman and instil the sense of guilt in her, even the saintly types.
I know a woman who worked at an arts project designed to support adults with learning difficulties. One would think that this woman would be confident of her self-worth. However, the demands of paperwork, an avalanche of administrative meetings, and the unsupportive colleagues – who were probably under the same amount of pressure – resulted in her falling ill and eventually quitting the job.
With disbelief, I heard this woman say: “For years, I have been having these negative thoughts about myself.” I thought: “What negative things could you possibly find to say about yourself, doing such an excellent job?” Such is the power of patriarchal inserting shame into women.
Girls grow up and, with time, they will find out that their parents were not perfect either. So, while parents shamed a girl for dropping her socks on the floor or being late with her homework, they might have been polluting earth’s air with diesel fumes from their car or supporting exploitative textile industry.
Whose negative impact on the world was bigger? And yet, those early shamings will be impossible to delete from a woman’s psychological profile. The girl will see the moral failings of her parents, but the shame will remain and eat her inside out. A woman will be unsure of herself, sabotaging her own efforts not only in professional and personal life, but also spiritually. She might say to herself: “I am not worthy of Enlightenment.”
Parents who try to impress moral values on their daughters with the help of shaming do them disservice. A better understanding of feelings of guilt and shame would lead to healthier lives. For women, what would seem particularly useful is metta, loving-kindness meditation, which helps develop self-love and self-worth.
Oxana Poberejnaia is a frame drummer, writer and an artist at http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and had been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention. Oxana is exploring the Sacred Feminine through frame drumming, working with her menstrual cycle, and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Her frame drum band can be found here.