“…shame relates to self, guilt to others.”
Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. in a 2013 issue of Psychology Today.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers song Under the Bridge has a refrain that goes, “I don’t ever want to feel / like I did that day,” which could technically refer to either guilt or shame—both give rise to feelings one wouldn’t want to repeat.
That song always brings to mind a day in about 1994 when I did something that made me feel a way I never want to feel again. I acted out of alignment with my own sense of right and wrong, and I got caught. Guilt plus shame.
I had recently moved my graphic design office to East Washington Avenue, into a rehabbed old factory building. Next door was a building occupied by a printing firm. The print shop had been there for decades—the motley crew of artistic types in my building, only a couple of years. Our building’s owner had not yet arranged a recycling solution for his tenants. I was generating office paper waste, and short of driving it home and placing it curbside with my residential recyclables, I was accumulating paper with nowhere to go.
One summer evening, I left the office with my overflowing carton of waste paper. I hope I meant to put it in the car—I don’t think my crime was premeditated. But I saw the printer’s recycling dumpster squatting just beyond the chain link fence from our parking lot, and no one in sight—I quickly tip-tapped an end-run around that fence in my Easy Spirit pumps and, pressing the carton against the dumpster with my chest, used one hand to lift the lid and the other to hoist the carton over the side.
“I saw what you did.”
That’s what you don’t want to hear when you, at 43 years of age, just did something a juvenile delinquent would do.
One of the pressmen had stepped out back to smoke a cigarette on the printer’s loading dock. I hadn’t paid enough attention to my surroundings before committing my crime.
I belonged to the same Rotary Club as his boss. I was a Rotarian, for crying out loud. That’s like being an Eagle Scout when it comes to moral behavior. And here I was against the dumpster with the lid still held high in my right hand.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t know what else to do—“
It sounded as lame to my ears as it must have to his. His reply was just a steely glare.
So I slunk away.
“Guilt and shame sometimes go hand in hand; the same action may give rise to feelings of both shame and guilt, where the former reflects how we feel about ourselves and the latter involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else,” Dr. Burgo wrote.
I didn’t inflict great harm on the printer with my carton of #20 bond, but I did steal 2.5 cubic feet of dumpster space they paid for. Getting caught made me feel bad.
I would probably have forgotten this incident if it wasn’t for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song. Every time I hear that lyric “I don’t ever want to feel / like I did that day” I have to relive that moment.
I’ve long since gotten over the guilt of taking a little dumpster space from a printing firm, but I’m still standing in the long shadow of the shame.