Fear, Shame and Guilt

I always employ a polemical comparison when trying to define the human condition: we are mammals similar to monkeys, but we possess a sophisticated computer installed in our brain. We do not know how to use this computer very well or how it functions. We have made some progress in that sense but still have a long way to go.

The human mammal has multiple desires. The main restraint against accomplishing some of them is fear, exactly as with other species. Fear is a defense that is part of the “instinct” of self preservation, an inborn process for keeping the animal out of real danger. Thus, when a dog is hungry, desire will impel it in search of food. But, if a jaguar is close by, it will flee, for fear will be greater than its desire to eat, bigger than its hunger. A man with no resources might rob a passerby. However, upon noticing the approach of a police car, his tendency will be to give up the assault to avoid arrest. In human beings, the dread of retaliation (or divine punishment) sometimes constitutes the sole barrier between acting or not.

Reason – that is how we name our computer – can introduce more elaborate bridles, modifying our way of being and acting. These brakes do not exist within everyone. In my opinion, to think differently was one of the great mistakes of Psychoanalysis. I believe that Freud generalized his conclusions based on individual experience. The method did not reveal itself adequate, for there are considerable differences between individuals of the same species. This comment having been made, let us consider the first degree of this more sophisticated process of conduct limitation. It is not based on fear. It is related to shame. When acting in a manner subject to censorship (for instance to steal, blackmail, or desire a forbidden sexual relationship), the individual fears that someone might surprise him in the act. That sentiment is not only connected to the dread of sanctions, but also to the possibility of being despised or ridiculed by others. In that case, the punishment is not prison or violence; it is humiliation.

When feeling ashamed, we react to an external event that might harm us. Retaliation is not physical but moral. We may not receive a beating; but we have to face a smile of disdain, capable of generating greater suffering than a whipping. Evidently the intermediation of reason is necessary in this process, connected to vanity and to the concern for our public image, so as to transform it into a powerful restraint. Nothing similar occurs with other animals. A dog does not feel ashamed when caught in the act of peeing on the living room carpet. He is only afraid of being punished.

The most sophisticated psychic reaction is not shame: it is guilt. Many people employ this word but ignore its true significance. I believe that the majority of human beings never experienced this sentiment. It constitutes an elaborate operation that presupposes the capacity to place oneself in the shoes of “another”. Selfish people, for instance, do not consider this possibility and, consequently, do not feel guilt. However, nothing hinders them from using the expression: “I am sorry about what happened.” It is not suffice to say it. One must act accordingly. We should guide ourselves more by the acts than the words of people.

When I place myself in the shoes of “another” and perceive that he is suffering, I feel pity. If I reach the conclusion that it was my behavior that caused undue pain, pity transforms into deep sorrow. This emotion is called guilt. It is our biggest restraint, a most powerful inner brake that transforms erring into something really human. Imagine the scene. A young man prepares to punch someone. As he is about to act out his impulse, he considers the inverse situation: he sees the blow hitting his own face and experiences the same pain that he is about to inflict. He suffers and, as he suffers, his arm becomes paralyzed… To experience the role of the victim puts the brakes on his violent action. Instead of sorrow, self control propitiates joy. Unfortunately, sometimes the restraint occurs even when we have a right to defend ourselves and, by refraining from reaction, we are then attacked. In that case, restraint is a two edged sword and can harm the more sensitive persons since these are capable of experiencing true guilt.

Translated by: Norma Blum