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Apology: the Guilt Ridden vs. the Shame Infused

We talk a lot about apology as a means of descalating conflict for the purpose of engaging in successfully mediated settlement conferences and non-mediated commercial negotiations alike.

You can bargain with someone who is enraged at (or even merely irritable with) you, but your negotiation will be derailed over and over again as feelings interfere with business judgment.

Although you can’t have one without the other (judgment without emotion) some emotions are conducive to successful negotiations and some are corrosive.

APOLOGY:  I’m writing a book and my blog-job is interfering with my deadline.  So I’m stealing my own material, for which I aplogize to myself and to any reader who has already read my published article on Restorative Justice — Shame by Any Other Name Lessons for Restorative Justice from the Principles, Traditions and Practices of Alcoholics Anonymous (2005) 5 Pepp. Disp. Resol. L.J. 299 (2005).

If you’re interested in what shame and guilt have to do with moral development as a preclude to recognizing the difference between guilt-ridden and shame-infused apologies, read on.  (and yes Janis, I’m working on it!)

A SHORT PRIMER ON SHAME, GUILT AND MORAL EDUCATION

A. The Origins and Effects of Shame.

The word shame is derived from the Indo-European skem which means “to hide.” Shame makes us want to hide – from ourselves, our God and our peers – making shame an existentially isolating state of mind. Feeling shame makes a person “dejection-based, passive, or helpless,” causing the “ashamed person [to focus] more on devaluing or condemning his entire self” than upon his behavior. He sees himself “as fundamentally flawed, feels self-conscious about the visibility of his actions, fears scorn, and thus avoids or hides from others.”

The shamed individual wants “to undo aspects of the self” whereas the guilt-ridden one wishes to undo aspects of his behavior. It is therefore not surprising that guilt tends to motivate restitution, confession, and apology, whereas shame tends to result in avoidance or anger.

The psycho-biology of the constellation of emotions we call “shame” is innate. It produces a sudden loss of muscle tone in the neck and upper body; increases skin temperature on the face, frequently resulting in a blush and causes a brief period of incoordination and apparent disorganization. No matter what behavior is in progress when shame affect is triggered, it will be made momentarily impossible. Shame interrupts, halts, takes over, inconveniences, trips up, makes incompetent anything that had previously been interesting or enjoyable.

A state of cognitive shame follows this initial cluster of feelings. After the painful jolt of shame, we begin to search our “life scripts” for some way to integrate the shameful experience with our prior experiences, to make sense of the pain and disorientation caused by the sudden upset of a positive emotional state.

Because our earliest experiences of helplessness relate to our size, strength and intelligence, only anger and its explosive cousin, rage, allow us to prove to ourselves and others that we are powerful instead of weak, competent rather than stupid, large rather than small. Thus do many shame-suffused individuals respond to chronic shame in an attack mode, particularly those who feel “endangered” by the depths to which their self-esteem has been reduced. Such individuals experience shame as a threat to their physical well-being and lack the ability to trust and rely upon others.

Shame thus serves as a barrier to one’s capacity to achieve empathy and develop conscience.

                        author

Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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