Godly sorrow, or mature guilt, is a constructive emotion. We are guilty of sin, and so feeling guilty is completely appropriate, including feeling deep remorse for our rebellion against God and sorrow for the hurt we have caused others. Awareness of our guilt is the first step in repentance and change. This godly sorrow appropriately follows the recognition that we have violated our own moral code.
Shame as we will define it here is not necessary to godly sorrow. Shame can even get in the way of godly sorrow or mature guilt. Shame can include self-disdain, fear of others’ opinions, or feelings of worthlessness. It is also akin to embarrassment, a tacit agreement with the judgments of others about our inferiority or foolishness. Shame preoccupies us with the opinions of people instead of the opinion of the Lord. To Joseph Smith, God warns, “For behold, you should not have feared man more than God” (D&C 3:7; emphasis added). But shame can also make us feel embarrassed before God, turning “divine discontent” over our weaknesses into discouragement or humiliation as we imagine His shaking finger. Even worrying about the opinions of righteous people can distract us from our righteous desires.
Shame is not the only emotional response one can have to weakness. Some people struggle more with pride, anger, fear, worry, timidity, indifference, or some other emotion. But shame is often at least an element in these other emotions and lends them a particularly bitter taste. It is also the emotion we most often confuse with genuine humility or with godly sorrow or mature guilt. For this reason, I think it helps to see some of the important differences between these states.
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Godly Sorrow vs. Shame
Both shame and godly sorrow can include uncomfortable feelings about having done something we consider inappropriate or hurting someone else, but that is where the similarities end. Shame leads people to hide and blame; godly sorrow, or mature guilt, leads people to confess and repair. Shame inhibits growth and esteem, while godly sorrow enhances both, providing an impetus to constructive change. With shame we see ourselves as bad people who have done something embarrassing or humiliating, and because we are inherently bad we want to hide our error so others will think we are better than we think we are. We want our image to be better than our behavior. With mature guilt we see ourselves as good people who have done something against our moral standards, and because we have strong moral values and compassion for others we want to correct the wrong. We want our behavior to be more consistent with our basically positive self-image.
In short, shame makes us want to run and hide, while godly sorrow for our sins or “divine discontent” over our weaknesses makes us want to improve and make things right.
Shame is probably a weakness that comes with the territory of being human. In some settings, carefully bounded, shaming can provide an initial motivation for obedience and social conformity. But shaming is not a good long-term strategy for promoting obedience because it motivates by fear instead of by righteous desire. Most parents use some shaming messages to socialize children and to try to correct unwanted behavior. When we internalize this shame, we may humiliate ourselves as a sort of preemptive strike to beat others to the punch. It takes honesty, courage, and a strong sense of our worth to acknowledge wrongdoing and change without losing hope or self-esteem. Excessive shame undermines all of the above. God is not averse to shaming rebellious souls who don’t feel remorse for their sins, but He does not shame us for our weakness when we are trying. The voice of shame is not from Him.
I’ve found three steps helpful in combating bouts of shame.
Name the Shame
When we see shame for what it is—an uncomfortable but not especially accurate or constructive feeling—we feel less inclined to assume that it means something real about us. We can see it instead as a temptation, an old habit, or a way we learned in the past to beat others to the punch of pointing out our faults. Rather than getting agitated and self-blaming we can get calm, curious, and compassionate. We can acknowledge our weakness without accepting the derisive opinions of voices of shame.
Rejoin the Human Race
Sharing our experience with someone who loves and supports us helps us feel less isolated and alone with our shame. Because the whole point of shame is to shun and exclude us, reconnecting with loving friends combats shame and keeps our foibles in perspective. Reconnecting with people who love us reminds us of our worth and value.
Dissect the Shame
By analyzing our particular shame vulnerabilities we are better prepared to take appropriate steps to combat them. People can be ashamed of many things. Lane Fischer, professor of counseling psychology at Brigham Young University, outlines six categories of shame along with the feelings and issues that accompany them, which I’ve adapted here. They include shame for
- weaknesses we believe others will dislike
- needs or dependencies
- ways we are different
- our circumstances or history
Most of us have some experience with each of these categories but have one or two we “favor.”
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In the true humility that is the antithesis of shame, godly sorrow and divine discontent are welcome messengers instead of pointing fingers. We are more apt to repent, submit to the consequences of our choices, learn the joy of our redemption, and become less likely to run and hide from the loving face of God. We can afford the risks of growth and learning that help turn weakness to strength.