03/22/2012 04:14 pm ET Updated May 22, 2012

Guilt Takes the Worry Out of Feeling Shame

Guilt is about wrong-doing; shame is about wrong-being*

You hurt someone, you lie to them, you betray them, you steal from them, or you abuse them or even worse. All pretty awful and even horrendous. Then you get caught, you pay your penance, or go to confession, or even prison, or all three, and then you get a clean slate. Nasty consequences, but still much more manageable than something that is deeply wrong inside you, that you are deeply ashamed of and believe is incurable and unfixable. In fact, guilt is so much more manageable that people will focus on feeling guilty -- for which there is a way out -- rather than on shame, for which it feels that there is no solution (I'm not suggesting that there isn't one, but it just feels as if there isn't).

Here are some common thoughts people have about themselves that cause them deep shame, things they want to be different but believe to their core cannot be changed or fixed.

  • "I've always cheated on my relationships."
  • "I cheat at work and school."
  • "I'm gay."
  • "I'm bisexual."
  • "I'm in a gay relationship but think I'm straight."
  • "I'm married but am addicted to porn."
  • "I always go to massage parlors and use hookers on business trips."
  • "I'm only married to my partner for their money."
  • "I'm not interested in anything about my partner except the way they look."
  • "I will lie to get out of anything I don't want to do."
  • "I act generous on the outside but only care about myself."
  • "I am deeply jealous of my closest friends, my siblings, my spouse and worst yet, my children."
  • "I wish my difficult, high-maintenance parent(s) would just die."
  • "I have serious health problems yet I eat very poorly and still smoke."
  • "I enjoy making other people feel bad when I'm upset."
  • "I'm a man and lack courage."
  • "I'm a woman and lack warmth."
  • "I don't believe in anything or even God."

Maybe you're not alone.

A story is told about how Jesus asks Saint Tom to watch over the gates of heaven while Saint Peter is away.

Tom is reluctant and says to Jesus, "I don't know what to do. How do I tell which people I should or shouldn't let in?"

Jesus replies: "Hmm, people do seem to be preoccupied with me. Ask them to describe who they think I am." Tom agrees to try and Jesus leaves.

A few hours later Jesus returns to check in with Tom and asks: "So how is it going?"

Tom smiles with the satisfaction from his newfound competence. He explains: "I think I'm getting the hang of it."

Jesus asks him who he has seen. Tom says: "Well there was this one guy, I think he was in his 80s. He looked like Geppetto in the story of Pinocchio. I asked him to describe you and he said, 'Jesus is strong, just and fair.'"

Jesus paused and then asked, "So what did you do with him?"

Tom replied: "Well of course, I let him in."

"Hmm," Jesus paused and seemed puzzled. "And who else did you see?"

Tom, beaming with pride, continued: "Well there was this elderly woman who answered, 'Jesus is loving, kind and beautiful.'"

"And what did you do with her Tom?" Jesus asked.

"Naturally I let her in too," Tom answered.

Jesus seemed somehow perplexed and asked: "Did you see anyone else?"

Now hesitant and not wanting to talk, Tom stammered: "Well there was this other man, but, er... he was uh... kind of different."

Jesus jumped on this news eagerly and said: "Oh please Tom. Tell me about him."

Tom could not face Jesus but continued: "Well he was a man in his 50s, full of anger and he said, "Jesus is petty, vindictive and bitter.'"

Jesus asked Tom: "And what did you do with him?"

Tom replied with embarrassment for Jesus, "Well naturally, I sent him away."

At that point Jesus looked at Tom with the calmness and wisdom that only someone that is "all knowing" could have: "Tom, that last person saw me exactly as I am, but what he failed to see was my effort every day to not be that way."

And the moral of the story? Having shameful thoughts does not make you shameful; it's what you do while having those thoughts that matters.

Now a final question for you. Who is the better person: the one who has good thoughts and does good deeds or the one who has bad thoughts and does good deeds?

* By the way, "dyed in the wool" narcissists, borderline personalities, paranoid personalities and psychopaths are not able to truly feel guilt or shame, because they are unable to feel remorse or agape (feel as pain the pain of others). What they are able to feel is fear of being caught and found guilty and then having to pay the consequences (that is why some will become suicidal -- not from the guilt, but to avoid the retaliatory consequence). They will also often become outraged at being humiliated or embarrassed, not because they feel guilty or ashamed, but because they feel they have been found out, lost control, and someone else is in control and there is a fear that they will then be retaliated against. The outrage is a way of unconsciously anticipating that retaliation and putting up a "full in your face" frontal counterattack even before they have been retaliated against.

For more by Mark Goulston, M.D., click here.

For more on mental health, click here.