Guilt is good. Shame is bad. The difference between the two may surprise you.

I had an experience today that got me thinking about the importance of understanding the difference between guilt and shame so that one can use feeling bad to learn and grow.  Now, a ton can be said about guilt and shame from a whole bunch of angles, and if you want to learn more, Brene Brown is a great resource and there are tons out there about this.  But for now, I’m just going to emphasize one example and try to make this point about how guilt and shame relate to our openness to learning.

So I was listening to a great podcast, both the specific episode and the podcast as a whole, when I heard something that just did not sit well with me.  The exact details are not important for this point, so I’ll just say, the hunter made a long shot from an uncomfortable and uncertain rest, hit their animal target, followed the blood trail quite a distance, but decided due to loss of the blood trail and observation of the animal when hit and as it ran off, that the animal was not mortally wounded, could not be recovered, and that they were justified in moving on and continuing their hunt.  The hunter did later kill, recover, and tag their targeted species.  I’ve seen the same happen on a number of YouTube shows.  I’ve seen the same attempted many dozens of times in hunting camps in which I’ve been a professional or volunteer guide.  

I say attempted in that last set of cases because well, that doesn't fly in those camps, at least when I was in them, which for outfitted hunt camps I will say has been some years.  Maybe things have changed there but “back in my day” if you drew blood, you were done, that tag is considered filled, whether you actually fill it out or not, and that animal is searched for until found or just cannot be by means or time available.  And you paid for that animal, whether as an upfront part of the hunt cost or as a kill fee.  There was some grumbling a few times but it was accepted.  It is basically the same still in the mentored youth hunt camps I guide in, except the money part.  In some states if you draw blood, any blood, you are legally done and your tag is considered filled. 

Since one was done if they drew blood, the search for their animal was strenuous, at times involving groups of a half dozen or more hunters and guides.  At times involving crawling on hands and knees finding pin head sized drops spaced many yards apart.  At times consuming days.  Many times, after it was deemed, due to some forensic guesswork that really only had the goal of making the hunter feel better about losing their animal, that the animal was “okay” or “just fine” or “alright” or some other completely impossible to prove determination.  Many, many, many times after that, I and or the other guides went out and found those animals.  Never, never, never, okay maybe once I think I might have heard about possibly, did we actually see those animals, more than a few days later, alive and actually fine.  And listen, a lot of this is hunting white-tailed deer at feeders that were basically tame and should have been seen again if alive.  

The more than a few days later I referenced is key to this point.  Because we would see them sometimes, still very, very rarely, in the few days after they were shot.  On very rare occasion even able to go ahead and finish the kill.  But again, out of many, many hundreds of animals we are only talking about a few here, because we just about always found them.  I hate losing an animal and to be honest, I kind of pride myself in finding animals others claim cannot be found.  I am so committed that I once followed a pin drop trail for a few miles, so focused that I convinced myself that this deer was so wounded it needed to walk down the middle of a jeep trail all that way to stick to easier country.  Of course it turned out I was in fact blood trailing an actual jeep with a dead deer in the basket on the front, built for carrying such things.  Yeah, that one was kind of embarrassing, trying to be a hero and looking like a zero, ha.  

Now here’s where I’ve been lucky and get to my actual point, because I am not even trying to make a point about lost deer and recovery and such.  Where I’ve been lucky is that I have gotten to learn a lot of lessons about finding wounded deer from other peoples’ situations not going exactly according to plan.  Since they were other peoples’ situations, I had no emotion tied up in some outcome, and the necessary convincing of myself of some unprovable forensic guesswork to make myself feel better if that outcome was not finding a dead animal after the shot.  

Let me give you an example from YouTube.  I’m not going to call the feller out, and for all I know, he came back and owned up to this thing.  And the thing I have a problem with is not that he kept hunting after he shot another animal and failed to recover it, though I do definitely disagree with it.  And the thing I have a problem with is not that he took a very marginal shot that many believe, used to be basically everyone believed, to not be an ethical shot placement, though again I do disagree with his shot placement attempt.  No, the problem I have is with the way he talked himself into justifying the marginal shot and then out of believing the animal was dead, since he could not find it.  

To tell the story in brief, he shoots the animal in the chest with his arrow, defends himself on camera that this was not a marginal shot, showing as “proof” that massive amount of blood left by the animal.  And he keeps following this massive “buckets of blood” trail and saying this animal surely will be right behind the next bush.  But as the trail peters out he starts to convince himself that there really hasn’t been that much blood and based on the shot angle he probably actually didn’t hit the animal that well and oh well, no problem, just a scratch.  And the next scene is him hunting the next morning.  Now listen, again, I’m not trying to get into any peripheral debates here, although they’d be good ones, about shot placement or whatever.  I’m just trying to make the point that this is how we, people, talk ourselves out of feeling bad by convincing ourselves that something didn’t happen the way it looks like it happened, which would make us guilty of something.  

Because you know what? I’ve wounded and not recovered some animals and you know what I did?  Convinced myself that they were okay, just fine, and alright.  I made really experienced sounding, confident statements and nodded my head and others did the same and agreed with me.  And we all walked away probably thinking, dang good thing nobody called me out on that bull stuff.  Then I’d have to keep feeling bad, feeling guilty.  Well, here’s what happened today, I called that podcaster I mentioned at the beginning of this out on that bull stuff.

I mean, I think I was really nice about it.  I really complimented him and the podcast and told some of these anecdotes trying to make it seem like I was judging and condemning and that I understood.  Of course, though, you can guess how that went over.  It wasn’t too bad really, just a short passive aggressive response that I definitely don’t blame him for.  I tried to make it better with a follow up reply but I guess that didn’t help.  But I know this psychology and sociology stuff a little bit, I know how this works, he was fighting against feeling bad, and that’s good.  

See, it can be good to feel bad, guilty bad, not shameful bad.  What’s the difference?  Guilt says we’ve done bad.  Shame takes that further and says that since we’ve done bad then we must obviously, certainly, surely, be something bad.  The difference can be subtle but the effect is worlds apart.  

One of the most common things momma’s bring their kids to counseling with me for is some version of self-worth issues and struggles. Now that is a whole ‘nuther topic in of itself, so for now I’ll just say that one of the best ways to build self-worth is to learn good, helpful, health life lessons from well, life.  And one of the best ways to learn life lessons from life is to mess up.  We all know this right, so what’s the problem?  Confusion about the difference between guilt and shame, or to say it another way, merging guilt and shame.  

When we mess up we know we could and should learn from it, so why do we often fail to do so?  Because if we’ve messed up we’d be guilty of some violation; of the law, of aspirational ethics, of social norms, of good sense, whatever.  And for the most part, my observation as a pastor and counselor is that people are usually pretty okay with this.  Unless….  They have gotten it in their heads and hearts somehow that this guilt means that they should feel shame about themselves.  This kills self-worth.  Or maybe wounds it in such a way that it isn’t recovered.  There’s probably a metaphor there to the original soapbox I got on to set up talking about this whole guilt and shame thing.  Write to me and tell me what you think the metaphor could be.  But back to the point…

So if we’ve gotten into our heads that if we are guilty of having done something bad and that must definitely mean we are something bad, well we really are only left with three choices.  We can stay on that teeter totter of emotion and be miserable.  If we don’t stay there that choice is okay-ish.  But eventually we will have to make one of the other two choices because being stuck in misery is not sustainable.  This process is what is called Cognitive Dissonance, we will talk more about that in depth another day.  The other two choices are to change our behavior, learn something, or to change our beliefs.  

The first one is hard and requires humility, effort, all kinds of things we’d generally rather not do because……. wait for it….. those things can indicate that we…..didn’t know or do something right, which is bad and which make us guilty and if shame and guilt are merged or confusing then that means we are something bad.  And that feels terrible doesn’t it.  And it can’t be can it? No, surely not.  

So….. wait a minute, what about that other option, change my belief, yes, that is easy and not only does it mean I might not have made a mistake, even be an idiot or something that I call others when they make mistakes, if I change my belief, well that would mean I am not bad but good.  Because isn’t it good and wise to be open and learn and admit that I now know something?!  This is great, I didn’t make a mistake.  I didn’t do bad.  I’m not bad.  I’m not a mistake.  I am good.  And wise, what a turn of events!

You know, Mark Twain said, among many great sayings, “it ain’t the things we don’t know that get us.  It’s the things we know with absolute certainty.  That’s just ain’t so.”  Confusing and merging guilt and shame make us very vulnerable to this calamity.  And what I am suggesting here is that by separating them and understanding their simple definitions and can at least guard against and limit the many, many problems that come with a struggle to do so.  This keeps us from feeling bad enough to learn but not so bad we get depressed, anxious, angry, or any and all of the common struggles that come with resisting being open to yes, I messed up, and that’s not okay.  But it’s going to be okay.  I’m going to learn and I am going to do better.  Because I only did something bad.  That doesn’t make me bad.  

So if you’ve drawn blood on an animal and convinced yourself it was okay, hey, maybe it was.  But you are still guilty of a bad shot and you know what, DON’T FEEL SHAME.  Just learn.  And do this same thing with every other possible mess up in your life!  

Now if you are a poacher or purposely are a game hog well then……

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