When I consider at the highest level the elements of their Mother’s faith that I hope my kids don’t buy into, I think that the religious shame is at the top of my list.
I should probably do some research on the psychological details of shame before I go spouting off, but just know that this is my personal experience only. The shame that I experienced while growing up in the Mormon church was nothing less than spiritual abuse and brainwashing.
Are shame and guilt learned characteristics or are they universal character traits of being human?
I lived in Japan for a year just after graduating from college. I learned a whole new set of values in their culture and initially found it quite charming. I was amazed that a mostly atheistic population could be so honest, well-behaved and socially generous. I learned, however, that a lot of cultural norms were held in place by the powerful notion of shame. I don’t think the idea exactly translates perfectly and I forget the actual Japanese word for it, but the very basic concept is that some things are “bad” and therefore not done because how it will make the individual and his family look. Some of the very same behaviors that would be so shameful in public were not seen as very “bad” in and of themselves…as long as you didn’t get caught.
I’d distinguish between “guilt” and “shame” by designating shame as being how you feel in relation to others when you’ve done something “bad”. Guilt on the other hand is what you feel when you break a universal moral code. I feel shame when I get caught in a lie. I feel guilty when I lie and it hurts someone whether anyone knows about the lie or not.
I learned growing up that God Himself was displeased with the very same things that the Mormon leaders were displeased with and therefore if Mormons said XYZ was “bad” then it was a universal truth. I felt “guilt” for a whole lot of Mormon minutiae. I used to joke that I had an overactive conscience. I’d apologize and “repent” for EVERYTHING.
But when I reflect on my actual feelings and behaviors, I now recognize most of those guilty feelings as really just shame for the Mormon God seeing my petty violation of His moral standards. They weren’t universal “bad” behaviors at all. I just felt embarrassed that God saw all my sins.
In that sense I don’t think there’s much difference between Japanese shame and Christian guilt. It’s just that the Christian concept adds one more “all-seeing-eye” to the mix and therefore even those behaviors that do no intrinsic harm to the well-being of self or others are shame-inducing when they violate one’s concept of what your particular brand of God likes to see.
I do believe there are universal moral violations that cause anyone to feel guilt.
But when I finally left the Mormon church it was startling to recognize how many colloquial sins no longer produced any shame in me…even when others knew. I could skip church, go swimming on Sunday, drink coffee and take my boyfriend into a Mormon church with me without the slightest hesitation that I was doing something “wrong”.
I still can’t lie or do anything else which violates a universal moral sense that I shouldn’t do anything to interfere with the well-being of myself or others. In other words, the Golden Rule seems to be the measuring device for my inner sense of right and wrong and I have to say it’s a whole lot easier and more peaceful this way.
I think this Mormon “shame” was such a big part of my life as a young man that I’d do anything for my kids not to have to experience it. The shame of being “gay” is only part of my experience and whether my kids are homosexual or not there’s no escaping the Mormon shame that who you are is not good enough.
I want for my children the message that who they are is a gift and that their inner voice alone is good enough to find happiness, peace and a sense of well-being. I believe it is bullying and abusive to tell someone that who they are is inadequate. But isn’t that the essential message of Christianity? You need help to be the best person that you can be? Mormonism takes that concept and repackages it with unique flair.
Nobody is watching us . There’s enough reason in this world to do good without an imaginary friend hovering over, recommending and recording each move of ours. My children are sincere, honest and talented human beings. As they grow, I see them increasingly second-guessing themselves and trying to correlate their life experiences with the Mormon God’s approval checklist and it is painful to watch.