Fear, Guilt and Shame

By | 05/10/2015

I always use a controversial analogy to try to explain the human condition: we’re monkey-like mammals with a sophisticated computer installed in our brains. We don’t really know how to use the computer or how it works. We’ve evolved, but still have a ways to go.

Human beings are mammals, with multiple desires. The main brake in acting on some of these desires is fear, just like other species. It’s a defense that comes with our innate self-preservation instinct, which is meant to protect an animal from real danger. So, if a dog is hungry, desire will make it go seek food. But if a coyote is around, the dog will run away; fear overrides hunger. A down-and-out man intends to rob someone on the street. He notices, however, a police car approaching. He won’t do it to avoid being arrested. In human beings, fear of retaliation (or divine punishment) is sometimes the sole barrier between action and inaction.

Reason – which is what we call our brain’s computer – might introduce more elaborate brakes that change the ways we are and act. Not everyone has these brakes; the way I see it, not recognizing this fact was one the biggest mistakes of psychoanalytic theory. I think Freud generalized and reached conclusions based on his personal experience. It was not a good method, because there are considerable differences between members of the same species. That said, let’s get to the first step of this more sophisticated process of creating behavior limits, which is not based on fear, but on shame. When acting wrongfully (let’s say, stealing, blackmailing or desiring a forbidden sexual relationship), a person might fear someone will catch them. This feeling is not connected only with the fear of retaliation, but also of social derision and ridicule. In this case, punishment is not jail or violence; it’s humiliation.

When we are ashamed, we are reacting to a harmful external event. Retaliation isn’t physical, but moral. The person won’t get beat up; they’ll have to endure a smile of derision, which can be more painful than being thrashed. Evidently, the ability to reason is necessary to create this process, which is linked to our vanity and concern with our image, and acts as a powerful brake. Other animals are incapable of this feeling; dogs are not ashamed when they’re caught peeing on the living room rug, just afraid of punishment.

But the most sophisticated psychical reaction is not shame; it’s guilt. Many people use the word, but don’t know its true meaning. In fact, I believe most people never feel it. It’s a complex operation that assumes a person has the ability to place themselves in another person’s shoes. This possibility is nonexistent for selfish people, so they are not capable of feeling guilt. It doesn’t stop them from saying “I’m sorry,” but it’s not enough to say the words; our actions must follow. We should pay more attention to what people do than what they say.

When a person puts themself in someone else’s shoes and realize they’re in pain, they feel compassion. If they conclude their behavior unfairly caused someone else pain, compassion becomes deep sadness. We call this guilt. It’s our main brake, a very powerful internal brake, which makes mistakes truly human. Picture it. A boy gets ready to take a punch. When he’s about to do it, he imagines a role reversal, sees the blow hitting his own face, and feels the same pain he was about to cause. He suffers, and when he does, his arm freezes. Putting oneself in the victim’s place puts a brake on violence. Instead of sadness, self-control brings happiness. Unfortunately, sometimes we freeze even when we are entitled to defend ourselves, and when we don’t react, we’re attacked. In this case, the brake is a double-edged sword and can be harmful to people who are more sensitive and capable of experiencing true guilt.

Tradução: Amanda Morris