This is an overview of one individual’s experience working with shame in a therapy context. He agrees that it’s an essential emotional state but one that can easily tip over into psychopathology. John Bradshaw and Brené Brown have built careers on the subject, so if you’re interested in the clinical issues, please look there. I’m interested in a less popular aspect: Why people who arguably should experience shame for their actions so often do not.

First, a reminder that shame and guilt are not the same thing. Guilt: A feeling of personal responsibility for some offense of behavior or conduct. Shame: A feeling, often painful, arising from a sense that you have betrayed, or are about to betray, an important value.

They do often occur together. For instance, our society assumes that someone arrested for DWI will as a result experience shame at having been arrested and punished.

But if you work with offenders, you know that may not happen. Instead, the offender arrives in treatment in full defense mode — marked by denial, rationalizing, externalizing, and minimizing. Some illustrations:

  • Carl, 35, insists he could not have been intoxicated when pulled over. “I had exactly one lousy drink, and it was a whole hour before. No way I could have blown a .12.”
  • Anita, 24, failed the field test. “Oh, I had on these brand new shoes that were too tight. It made me stumble.”
  • Maria, 48, blames the arresting officer. “The way he smiled at me… I knew right away he didn’t like me.”
  • Frank, 29, doesn’t understand the fuss. “So I get fined and sent to DWI school. So what?”
  • Bob, 62: “There was something wrong with that damn breath test machine. You ask anybody at the wedding. By the time I left, I was sober.”

As a result of this kind of thinking, many offenders experience treatment as punishment, no different from a fine or a license suspension. They arrive angry and defensive, and that becomes the major barrier to change.

It’s sad, because the last estimate I saw was that an offender drives under the influence between 50 to 200 times for every time he or she gets busted. If that’s accurate, then no wonder they it’s treated as  simple bad luck.