Sunday 22 January 2017

Shame and Guilt

Over the last couple of days, I have been at a Daring Way workshop, run by Jacqui Sjenitzer, and based on the work of Brené Brown (see here for an account of a previous workshop with Jacqui on this material).  I will blog more about the workshop overall (it was excellent) when I have had time to reflect on it further. In this post I want to pursue one particular line of thought. 

One of the many helpful distinctions that Brown makes is between guilt and shame. According to her understanding, guilt is 'I did something bad,' and shame is 'I am bad.' Further, she states that shame is positively correlated to addiction, depression, and many other problems; whilst guilt is inversely correlated to them: it leads to much better outcomes.

That led one of the participants on the programme to say: "People talk about Catholic guilt; but really it's Catholic shame..."

I understand that for many people, that may be their experience of Catholicism; and I am not going to argue with their lived reality. However, it is also my experience that the opposite is true, and that my Catholic upbringing, at least, has allowed me to deal appropriately with guilt and not be shackled by shame. We didn't get into that discussion on the workshop - it would have been a fairly major digression, and Jacqui wanted us to move on. So here are my reflections.

My thesis is that Catholicism is very powerful. And like anything that is powerful, when abused, it becomes very destructive. But used properly, it is a great force for good.

I was pleased that one of the other participants, at the end of the programme, chose to share a quotation attributed to Mother Teresa, which she felt summed up the spirit of the course:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
 What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. 
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. 

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.
That, it seems to me, is an example of Catholicism done properly.

One of the things that interests me is how much of the new wisdom on how to live a healthy, happy and successful life is already embedded in the Catholicism in which I was raised.

From Viktor Frankl, we learn of the importance of meaning and purpose: from my upbringing, I know that my meaning and purpose are to love and be loved.

In a world that seems ever more bitterly divided, I hold fast to my Faith that all were created by love, in love, and for love.

To move on from difficult stuff, Brown (and others) teach us that we need to acknowledge it, learn from it, apologise or make amends when appropriate, and then leave it behind. Many use therapy to help with this. In my tradition, that need is met by a daily examination of conscience, prayers of contrition, a resolution to do better next time, confession, and absolution. The psychological benefits of this practice, alone, are extraordinary (when correctly practiced, of course).

The research on the benefits of meditation is convincing many people of the importance of this as a daily practice. We learned that from the Desert Fathers (and Christ himself, of course), and daily meditation is the cornerstone of a life of prayer.

Almost every book on leadership talks of the importance of integrity, based on clear values. I strive to run my business (and indeed life) according to the values of Faith, Hope and Charity; and informed by justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude. (Temperance is not a fashionable word, but it is vigilance against excess: and how much that is needed at present!). My favourite (and recurrent) feedback is that I help to re-kindle or strengthen hope.

We are learning more and more about the beneficial effects of the practice of gratitude. From my earliest years, I have been taught to give thanks for every day, for every meal on the table..., in fact for everything.

As I say, I recognise that others have had a dreadful experience of a Catholic upbringing, and that is truly tragic (and shameful for the Church). But I think that the other story also deserves to be told; the formation that inspired not only Mother Teresa, but also Maximilian Kolbe, the friar who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in Auschwitz, Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, and countless others in every field of human endeavour.


  1. I loved reading this. Thank you for taking the time and trouble, and for caring about the same things that I do! I feel blessed to have spent such quality time in the same space with you this weekend.

  2. Thanks, Jacqui. Will write more in due course.

  3. Thanks for these thoughtful reflections Andrew, and for sharing the words of Mother Teresa which are a timely reminder (and a gentle challenge!) to me, often. I'm going to put them where I can see them . . .