This article was originally published on July 31 2015 and updated on September 29 2020.
I recently did the online TOSCA Test of Self-Conscious Affect, out of interest, to explore my tendency toward shame self-talk, guilt self-talk, and blaming others. The test is designed to distinguish whether we are likely to have an inner dialogue around shame or guilt in response to a situation, or if we completely abnegate responsibility and push the blame out to someone external to us.
In self-compassion training we are encouraged to see our internal landscape and our field of awareness as our laboratory for exploring our experience. It’s part of the mindfulness piece – only once we can see what’s going on for us, can we take action to tend to our needs. I love tests like the TOSCA, but I also know that these kinds of tests are not the whole picture, and might even not measure what they purport to measure, however if something like the TOSCA helps us to simply look at and think about our experience in a different way, it can be a useful tool.
Shame and guilt have some very important distinguishing features that have wide ranging ramifications. Shame is “I am bad,” while guilt is “I did something bad.” Shame is “I am fundamentally flawed,” while guilt is, “That was a really bad idea.” Shame is, “Let me hide, I am not worthy, I do not matter,” while guilt is “What do I need to do now to fix this?”
Shame erodes our faith in ourselves. Brené Brown says that, “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” Shame is about powerlessness, ineffectualness and victimhood. We cannot effectively take action in the world while under the iron grip of shame. As Brené teaches, we can learn shame resilience, and we can tend to ourselves in the midst of our shame, but it’s an insidious and entrenched tendency that requires a lot of work to root out.
He offered that he had never had much of a problem with shame. Part of me deduced that he hadn’t looked hard enough…
Guilt, on the other hand, can’t wait to reach out to make amends. Guilt can offer a sense of urgency in taking action. If I believe I might have offended my friend, I’ll think about the situation, leave enough space to sit with my action and its possible ramifications, and then reach out to her as soon as I can to say, “Did I offend you, dear one? If so, I am very sorry.” Guilt is a much more fluid emotion, and its remedy apparent and achievable. Personally, I’ll take the informative and constructive power of guilt over shame any day!
However, much to my disappointment, I have come to believe that I am quite a shame-prone person. I recently asked a colleague the rhetorical question, “I seem to experience a lot of shame. I wonder if other people experience this much shame.” He offered that he had never had much of a problem with shame. Part of me deduced that he hadn’t looked hard enough, while another part that could conceive of a life without shame could only imagine the freedom that came from being in that particular world.
As I was tallying up the results of the TOSCA test, I was seeing a trend, and I remember saying to myself, “This can’t be good,” as it became apparent that I had answered nearly 100% in one category. I assumed it was shame self-talk. You can imagine my surprise when I found that I had an average amount of shame self-talk and tendency to blame others, and it was guilt self-talk that scored nearly 100% (telling me that I had an above average level of guilt self-talk). It was one of those “Hang on, who am I again?” moments, where I felt my sense of my own identity being pushed off its axis.
It feels as if the fact that I have the ability to prevent some suffering in the world automatically makes me responsible for alleviating all it.
It precipitated a cascade of memories of “taking responsibility,” the fundamental assumption under guilt. The memories filed away in that folder in my mind went all the way back to when I was 4, taking my little brother by his hand and leading him away from danger, to last week when I was alert and ready to rescue my neighbors cat during a thunderstorm. And the memories keep tumbling out of that folder – so many ways to take responsibility for things that, generally, are not my responsibility, outcomes that I am not at blame for. I am becoming aware that often my first impulse is to feel responsible, to feel at blame, and to feel guilty.
It feels as if the fact that I have the ability to prevent some suffering in the world automatically makes me responsible for alleviating all of it. This is the Bodhisattva ideal, but my feeling is that it’s meant to be done joyfully and intentionally, not with the shackles of responsibility for all the world’s suffering the way I sometimes feel it. Slavery, genocide, racial hate crimes and animal cruelty are, I think it’s safe to say, not mine to own and make amends for as part of my solo mission.
I can’t tell you how useful this revelation is for me in my journey of discovery. It’s as if I can now view my internal landscape through a more powerful microscope. If I can wedge mindfulness in at that point where I feel I’ve gone straight to taking responsibility, then I can make informed decisions to not indiscriminately take the blame and heap on the guilt. I can decide what I am at blame for, what I am guilty for, and leave the rest to the universe to sort out. The benefit of this – more time responding and creating and less time reacting and planning rescue missions.
I am the protector of my own guilt. That’s something I can take responsibility for.
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