often used synonymously with guilt, but the two just aren't the same and will not produce the same results with our characters. Shame is negative and connected to negative behavior. Guilt is is positive and not connected with negative behavior. If your character says that the reasoning for their destructive behavior was guilt, they are wrong. It was because of shame. In this post you will learn why that is.
As with the last post, I will be citing research by the brilliant and lovely Texan, Dr. Brené Brown. If you aren't familiar with her work, she has spent twenty years studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. Gal knows her stuff.
Chapter 8 of my book, Killing Isn't Easy, examines the effects of violence on the human psyche including those associated with PTSD. Guilt is woven deeply into the fabric of the disorder as can be both regret and shame. It stands to reason that if your character is party to a violent act, even as an onlooker, shame, guilt and/or regret may be packed tightly in their emotional baggage. Yes, even those who witness a violent act may develop PTSD, especially if they see the faces of those involved. Why? Read,The Aftermath of Killing in Chapter 8 of my book.
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All right, last post we nailed down what shame is. So, what are guilt and regret? Guilt, according to Dr. Brown, is "holding something we've done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort." Guilt separates the action from the one who does the act unlike shame that sees them one in the same. (One AND the same? One IN the same?... Same thing!) Guilt says, "I have done a bad thing." Shame says, "I am bad." While the former is as powerful as the latter, the two have very different results.
Guilt is productive, a motivator for the the characters we write. Guilt will make characters emotionally, even physically, uncomfortable and goad them toward change. They will look at what they did and think, that was incredibly painful. I don't want to do that again, it hurts too much. However, characters who feel shame will think, I am horrible and I deserve to hurt.
Regret is looking back on something we should have or could have done differently. And, according to Dr. Brown, is a function of empathy. Empathy is being willing to share in what someone else feels. When we consider something we regret, we consider how our action or inaction did or could have impacted others. And, that other person may be our own selves. Regret is a, "a call to wisdom."
The character who lives by the "no regrets," mantra is choosing to live without reflection and choosing to not feel how their actions impacted others. This character is not brave and is not "carpe-ing" the diem. I think of "No Regerts" living as a junk food life. Sure, you are feeding yourself with daily experience. But, it's not food that helps you grow. It's a life that just occupies you with chewing. You stay full bellied, satisfied and completely stunted.
How will all of this manifest in our characters. Characters who feel guilt or regret will move toward change. People don't generally change until it hurts too much to stay the same. Guilt and/or regret are a part of that process. Neither guilt nor regret will be a cause for violence against the self or others. That is not to say they will not cause psychological pain that goes so far as to manifest physically. Our characters should feel the pains of guilt and regret. But, again, that pain will prompt change not the drive to inflict pain on others. That is a function of shame.
Here's a clip of Dr. Brown explaining the difference in guilt and shame. I think it is powerful for our characters because it is powerful to us as humans. The better we understand ourselves and each others as humans the more tools we have to create fuller, richer characters. I highly suggest all of Dr. Brown's books to all humans. And most cats. Dogs are good. Most cats need to check themselves!
Until the next round at FightWrite.net, get blood on your pages.