In the 29th installment of SAGE’s Relationship Matters podcast, hosted by Dr. Bjarne Holmes of Champlain College, Dr. Blake Riek (Calvin College) discusses the important distinction between guilt and shame and gives advice on how to transcend both feelings and move toward forgiveness.
The research, conducted with Lindsey Root Luna (Hope College) and Chelsea Schnabelrauch (Kansas State University) is unique in that the research team studied forgiveness from the perspective of the person who engages in wrongdoing (i.e., the transgressor). In other words, the researchers wanted to know what happens when one individual wrongs another, but rather than focus on the ‘victim,’ the researchers focused on the transgressor. To do so, the researchers followed 166 individuals over time, collecting feelings of guilt and shame, and forgiveness-seeking behaviors. As a result, the researchers were able to test whether guilt and/or shame affected the likelihood of transgressors to seek forgiveness from their victims.
The team predicted correctly that feelings of guilt at Time 1 predict forgiveness-seeking behaviors at time 2. This pattern of findings suggests that guilt serves a useful purpose and sometimes functions as a primary motivator in forgiveness seeking. Shame, however, showed no associations with forgiveness seeking, suggestion that whereas guilt may be useful at prompting forgiveness attempts, shame may not be.
Dr. Riek explains, “What’s important is to distinguish between guilt and shame… Shame is more of an overall negative evaluation of the Self…‘I’m a horrible person or I’m a worthless person’ or something along those lines, and that’s actually not very helpful at all. Guilt is, ‘I did a bad thing’ – so I may still be a decent person, but I recognize that what I did was bad. Guilt, as bad as it feels, motivates us to restore relationships. Shame may make us withdraw and doesn’t really help us with that.”