On guilt, shame, and accountability

"Love means having to say you're sorry"

I’ve been thinking about this particular post for over a year, and am now finally feeling called to write it. The immediate impetus is our discourse around race, in the context of uprisings for racial justice that have now gone global. But it’s a broader and deeper question, one upon which everything hinges: how and why do people change? What is it that inspires people to take action to build a better world?

No one really knows, and as always: it depends. I like the heuristic of the comfort / stretch / panic model, which serves as a useful reminder of what we all intuitively know: growth requires discomfort… and even some pain. You can’t learn to ride a bike without falling down. But too much pressure… and we shut down.

I want to use this post to explore this inquiry: how can we create enough discomfort (pain?) to move into — and stay! — in the growth zone? And I specifically want to focus on the complex interplay between guilt, shame, and accountability, and the implications for both personal growth and our movements for social justice.

TL;DR: This is about moving from fixed mindset to growth, from shame (I am bad) to guilt (I’ve done something bad)… to accountability (I can and must make amends). It’s about intentionally cultivating our resilience, learning to separate the message from the messenger, and turning toward curiosity. Our ability to survive this moment of intersecting crises depends on us individually and collectively building this skill-set.


Guilt vs Shame: Shame =Trauma

Brené Brown is the world’s foremost researcher on these dynamics; here’s how she defines the terms:

Shame – The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. We feel like something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. Shame often leaves us feeling immobilized, or worse, feeling ready to strike out as a way of offloading the pain of disconnection.

Guilt – Feeling bad about something you have said or done, or failed to say or do. We feel guilt when we compare our actions to our values and they don’t match up. It creates a sense of psychological discomfort. This comparison and discomfort often motivates us in a positive direction, either apologizing or doing things differently in the future.

There’s so much going on here. The key difference I think is the difference between fixed and growth mindset, between noun and adjective. Shame = I am bad; guilt = I did something bad. Shame focuses on our identities; guilt focuses on our behaviors. I think a lot about this in our current discussions over racism. As activist T1J said: “Racist is an adjective, not a noun.” (And so too with anti-racist: it’s not something we are, it’s something we do). It’s a subtle but for me transformative shift in perspective.

A caveat here that I’m not totally sure what to do with. One of the framing pieces informing this post was an incredibly insightful podcast episode from Brené Brown on shame and accountability. In it she distinguishes between “feeling shame” and “being shamed.” I’m reminded of the intent/impact debate, and one of the most simultaneously obvious and difficult ideas to wrap my head around: that I am not responsible for how someone else reacts. So I think what we’re going for here — the purpose of this post — is as actors how we can avoid “shaming.” And as subjects, how we can learn to sit with the critique without retreating into shame. Does that make sense?

One more thing to put on the table before we move on, from the queen herself. bell hooks takes Brené’s conclusions a step farther. She declares (echoing Audre Lorde’s timeless reminder about the master’s tools):

As Mariame Kaba notes: “Shame does not motivate. Shame debilitates.”

Guilt = Debt

If shame is trauma…. perhaps guilt is debt. My favorite exploration of this topic came from Eula Biss, whose 2015 article “White Debt” (and subsequent interview for OnBeing) is a beautiful meditation on guilt and responsibility in the context of race and whiteness. It’s an incredible read, and difficult to excerpt a pithy quote. Her core insight is that the German root for the words “guilt” and “debt” are the same. As she reflects on the legacy of whiteness in America, she finds herself resonating with Ta Nehisi Coates’ analogy of “our compounding moral debts.” Guilt, that is, conveys a sense of responsibility: something is owed.

The literature on guilt and shame agrees that shame leads to disconnection, and as such is a barrier to empathy (empathy by definition is our ability to connect to an “other”). The literature is mixed on whether guilt does this too. Some argue that guilt as an emotion re-centers ourselves (those hearing the feedback, responding to the presumed critique) and as such deadens our ability to continue to “feel” the other’s experience. Honestly, I’m not sure — I think it can be both. The task for those of us on the receiving end of feedback is to stay connected to the other’s experience, to stay on the side of guilt that urges us to action rather than tipping over into the disconnection of shame.

“Healing is painful, but it’s not hurtful”

I take this line from a beautiful reflection from Lawrence Barriner II, who in turn attributes it to Djalóki Jean-Luc Dessables. Lawrence reaches the same conclusion I’ve found myself coming to:

Pain involved with healing is, in my mind, necessary in order to move forward.

Yes — it stings to peroxide a wound, but we know it’s necessary to avoid infection. It’s necessary pain. Resmaa Menakem, one of my favorite sages/guides for navigating this moment, offers a helpful distinction between what he calls “clean pain” and “dirty pain.”

Clean pain is pain that mends and can build your capacity for growth. It’s the pain you experience… when you step forward into the unknown… with honesty and vulnerability. Clean pain hurts like hell. But it enables our bodies to grow through our difficulties, develop nuanced skills, and mend our trauma.

Dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, blame, and denial. When people respond from their most wounded parts, become cruel or violent, or physically or emotionally run away, they experience dirty pain.

Perhaps clean pain = guilt, and dirty pain = shame? Or maybe another way of putting it: this is the distinction between the pain of healing, and the pain of trauma. How can we build our capacity to withstand healing pain, without crossing the threshold to trauma?

We are fragile

The brilliance of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility is exploring the dynamics of guilt and shame as impacts white people in conversations about race (and in particular, in the face of feedback about racist behavior). The shortcoming, in my view, is not contextualizing that fragility as a broader feature of society. Here’s the thing: we are all fragile.

At the Othering and Belonging Conference in 2019, Alexis McGill Johnson offered something that continues to stick with me. She said:

When you’re triggered, turn toward curiosity.

Her simple statement struck me with the force of its wisdom, its simplicity… and its seeming impossibility. Who among us has the skills to do that?

White fragility is a sharp send-up of this phenomenon as applies to whiteness (and I would argue, particularly to feminized whiteness — white fragility looks different in white men and white women: where women may turn to “white tears” men often turn to violence). Sun Yung Shin had a piece about this recently that I found provocative; she reframes it “white flammability.” But de-contextualized from race, who among us hasn’t felt this sentiment:

No matter what I say, this… person is going to react with anger and accusations and exclamations of their own innocence and my wrongness for attacking them, and nothing good will come of it.

This seems like just a truism of a culture that doesn’t know how to say “I’m sorry.” But I think it takes added weight under two seemingly opposed conditions:

1) When a core identity, something which we feel is foundational to our sense of self, is at stake (mother, teacher, police officer, American, “I’m a good person,” etc.)

2) When a fragile identity, something we are already insecure about, is at stake.

It took me a while to choose the words “at stake” above. I first wrote “attacked,” then replaced that with “threatened,” then laughed at myself for playing straight into what DiAngelo observes: we use the language of violence to describe what at its core is really just feedback (she has a great reflection on this in a recent podcast interview for OnBeing with Resmaa Menakem). It should tell us something (and I mean this “us” here to include all of us) that we tend to experience feedback as an attack. This is what I mean when I say we as a culture are fragile.

Heather Plett had a good line on this in her recent newsletter, observing this phenomenon (which I’ve modified to implicate all of us):

They [we] haven’t been equipped to hold space for their [our] own shame.

Love Means Having to Say You’re Sorry

I had an “aha” moment listening to Eve Ensler (now known as simply ‘V’) deliver an impassioned speech at last year’s Bioneers conference. She flipped an adage I’ve always found troubling on its head, from “love means never having to say you’re sorry” to “love means having to say you’re sorry.” Listening to her I thought: yes. And: wow, that’s really hard. I’m not sure we are really equipped for this. Emerging from her own deeply traumatic experience (as a survivor of child sexual abuse), she offers a 4-step definition of the components of a good apology:

  1. The first is a willingness to self-interrogate, to delve into the origins of your being… to investigate what happened in your childhood, in your family, in this toxic culture. [This requires a capacity for introspection.]

  2. The second stage of an apology is a detailed accounting and admission of what you have actually done. [This requires acknowledging harm.]

  3. The third stage of an apology is opening your heart and being, and allowing yourself to feel what your victim felt… and then allowing yourself to see and feel and know the long-term impact of your violation. [This requires empathy.]

  4. The fourth stage, of course, is taking responsibility for your actions, making amends and reparations where necessary, all of this indicating you’ve undergone a deep and profound experience that has changed you and made it impossible for you to ever repeat your behavior. [This requires atonement.]

Hoo, boy. This is what accountability looks like, and it’s a high bar. When was the last time you saw, offered, or experienced a sincere apology that checked all four boxes? Have you ever?

[And this just on an individual/interpersonal level: this is the art of restorative and transformative justice in a broader societal context — more on that in a future post.] These are four distinct but interrelated skills sets, none of which our society seems to value, teach, model, or inculcate in any serious way. To the contrary: as sujatha baliga reminded us recently on Ezra Klein’s podcast, our adversarial judicial system actively encourages us NOT to apologize (“anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”)

I found myself reflecting here on Naava Smolash’s brilliant book (under her pen name Nora Samaran) on Nurturance Culture, where she offers this:

Until you have a core sense of worth and belonging, it can be very difficult to get to healthy accountability to others where, upon hearing feedback about the impact of harm, your sense of self neither collapses nor a false sense of worth needs to be defended.

Small wonder so few of us are equipped for this: we live in a society that from day one attacks our sense of self-worth and belonging… all the more so the farther you are marginalized from dominant culture. Though there is a paradox here, too: what is unique about white fragility is how un-resilient we (white people) really are — we have so little practice in our atomized, individualistic, disconnected world being in loving and accountable relationships. It is perhaps not surprising that the rate of suicide and “deaths of despair” is so much higher among white people than black people or people of Latin American descent, for example.

This post — and this larger moment of societal reckoning — is taking place in the context of race. But this insidious aspect of our disconnection traces its roots far beyond the emergence of white supremacy (some 500 years ago) to the emergence of patriarchy (10,000 years ago)… as V acknowledges in her speech. This was a core takeaway from my series on “why does patriarchy persist”: the perpetuation of these systems of oppression and domination is contingent on subverting our ability to repair relationships, to reconnect. Returning to Brené:

Shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can be different.

Yes. Shame traps us in a spiral where we come to believe that change is impossible… and thus not worth striving for.


There’s lots more to say on this subject, but I want to close with one practice and one invitation for others who are interested in continuing to explore this fraught terrain.

Practice: Assessments

I was introduced to this tool by the Strozzi Institute in their Embodied Leadership course. I couldn’t find a pithy definition online; here’s one resource that gets at it. There are two components:

1) An assessment is neither true nor false.

2) It can be grounded (substantiated with some evidence) or ungrounded.

And ideally there should be a third component: they are shared in relationship (you have to grant the person permission or “standing” from which to offer their assessment).

When I know I’m going to get feedback, I try to remind myself of this, and listen for the kernel of truth: the message, not the messenger. (And I pair it with some sort of somatic practice to calm my nervous system: to ensure I stay in “stretch” mode rather than allowing myself to be triggered straight into panic).

Invitation: Conversations on Transformation

The cutting edge of this work, in my view, is around the practice of embodiment (which Strozzi teaches) and the discipline of somatics. Curtis Ogden introduced me to a Sioux saying that really resonated with this moment for me:

The longest journey you will make in your life is from your head to your heart.

Yeah — tell me about it. And most of us haven’t had any guides to point the way. We are fortunate to have a rich knowledge base: pioneering thinkers and practitioners around race like Angela Glover Blackwell, john a. powell, bell hooks, Manuel Pastor, and Angela Davis (and their successors in people like Ibram Kendi). But the evolution that I’m most excited about is not about knowledge, or cognition, or cerebral processing: it’s about our felt experience. This is the work perhaps best personified right now by Resmaa Menakem, and people like Staci Haines.

I’m particularly interested in the connection between individual healing (somatics) and societal healing (what Tada Hozumi calls “cultural somatics.”)

One of the Building Belonging Conversations on Transformation will be taking up that subject in August with some of the best in the business (with Rev. angel Kyodo williams and Kazu Haga joining Staci and Tada). But tune in first on July 21st for a conversation exploring some of the individual aspects of transformation around this topic, here:

Anyway, I’ve reached the point in writing where I can no longer tell if this is an insightful post that conveys what I was hoping, or something repetitive and mediocre… so I’ll press “publish” here and let you sort it out. I’m open to feedback, and, dare I say, accountability!