Cultivating a Healthy Sense of Shame

Can shame be healthy?

Shame has a bad rap these days. If you’re Catholic, or were raised so, you’re probably familiar with the idea of “Catholic guilt.” Typically, the term refers to a feeling of shame caused by a Catholic upbringing. Sometimes, this shame is treated as an emotion to be avoided at all costs, a psychological handicap to be healed from. This is sometimes true. Many feel a disproportionate sense of shame, and this is often the result of abuse or scrupulosity. In these cases, professional help might be needed. But like many things in our society, where there’s an excess in one part, there’s a deficiency in another. And if Aristotle was right to say that virtue is the mean between these two extremes, perhaps this Lent we can put the emotion (or “passion”) of shame in its rightful place.

First, a definition. St. Thomas Aquinas defines shame (verecundia) as a subcategory of the passion of fear, specifically, of the disgrace for having done something.[1] Now, like any passion, shame can be rightly-ordered, or wrongly-ordered. If you feel shame at school lunch for sitting at the nerdy table rather than the preppy table, that's probably a bad kind of shame. But if you feel shame after cheating on your spouse, that's the good kind!

At Eternity's Gate by Vincent van Gogh

Shame, like any other emotion such as anger or joy, can direct us to the good. What good is that? God. The New Testament refers to repentance with the word metanoia, “changing one’s view.”[2] If we take Thomas description[3] of sin as a “turning away” from the Eternal Good, and towards finite goods, shame can help to change our view, to turn our gaze away from distracting idols, to the enduring, fulfilling Good that is God.

Having said that, we’re not meant to perpetually have a feeling of shame. Shame wasn’t part of the picture when God first made Adam and Eve.[4] The Psalms remind us of this: “O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed.”[5] God does not want us to feel shame. He wants to free us from it. What’s the best way to shake off those bad feelings? Scripture tells us: “I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all thy commandments.”[6]

So if we don’t have our eyes fixed on God’s commandments, let’s “change our view.” If you feel shame after gossiping, or indulging in too much food, or not keeping custody of your eyes, maybe it’s time to confess and make amends. Let’s change our gaze, turning away from the idols that distract us, and towards God, especially as he manifests himself to us through our neighbor, for “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”[7] Then we can say with confidence: “The Lord God will help me… and I know that I shall not be ashamed.”[8]


[1] ST I-II q. 41 a. 4

[2] e.g. Matthew 3:2, John the Baptist says, "Repent!"

[3] e.g. De Malo IV a.1

[4] Genesis 2:25

[5] Psalm 25:2

[6] Psalm 119:6

[7] Matthew 25:40

[8] Isaiah 50:7

Br. Elias Guadalupe Ford, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE