Guilt and shame

Two freshmen receive a C on their linear algebra midterm:

Ella is disappointed. She decides she needs to attend her professor’s office hours each week and spend extra time understanding her problem sets before the final.

Andrea is disappointed. She realizes that she’s not a math person, which was obvious in retrospect given how hard the problem sets had been, and decides to swap her computer science major for something with fewer math requirements.

We carry in our heads theories about our own intelligence. Some believe they can improve their abilities through effort, and view their successes and failures as consequences of the amount of work they’ve done.

Others believe their abilities to be fixed: they are either born with “it” or not. They are good at physics, or not. They are funny, but not Chris Rock funny. Practice might reveal one’s talent, but it will not generate ability where there is no talent.

What psychologists have yet to explore is the ways in which “incremental” and “entity” mindsets extend far beyond our perceptions of ability.

In an interview with Tim Ferriss, vulnerability and shame researcher Brené Brown describes a scenario which certainly, definitely hasn’t happened to any of us:

“You go out on Thursday, you get wasted. You are hungover on Friday, miss your alarm clock, and miss an important meeting. You get to work and your self talk is: ‘Jesus, I am a loser. I am an idiot…’ That’s shame.

If you get to work on Friday, same scenario, and your self talk is:  ‘I cannot believe I did that, that was such a lame thing to do…’ That’s guilt…

Shame is I am a bad person, guilt is I did something bad.”

Shame is an entity mindset, applied to our self-worth. We fucked up because we’re fucked up.

Guilt, as painful as it can be, is an incremental mindset: we might have fucked up today, but tomorrow we can do better.

Two freshmen receive a C on their linear algebra midterm:

Ella feels guilty.

Andrea feels ashamed.

Later that night, Ella and Andrea commiserate at an unheralded (but sublime) Greek restaurant. The owner pours generous shots of ouzo for both of them – on the house, for his regulars. Andrea is ready for her third round (it is Thursday, after all) when Ella leans in and makes a suggestion.

Early next morning, they both appear at office hours, red-marked tests in hand, guilty but unashamed.