The Fine Line Between Guilt and Shame

The Fine Line Between Guilt and Shame

Neal Goyal Guilt vs ShameWhen we do something wrong, guilt is a natural feeling that follows, acknowledging that we feel remorse for our actions. Guilt can create a weight on our body, as we think about what we had done wrong. It can be a heavy burden to carry, affecting us mentally, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. At the same time, guilt is not always a bad thing. It serves as a message from our minds that we feel poorly about a particular set of choices. And in many cases, guilt can serve as a mechanism to push someone to make things right, and solve the problem that triggered the guilt in the first place. But what about shame? Shame refers to taking those feelings of guilt, and applying them to our own sense of self-worth. It is a mechanism that directly shows how you perceive yourself as a person. Where guilt acknowledges certain actions, shame takes things a step further by defining yourself by those guilty actions. As such, there is a fine line between guilt and shame.

This is the problem I battle with each day. As a current federal inmate, serving a six-year sentence for a financial crime associated with my hedge fund, I have so much regret for what I did. Now entering my third year in prison, I have seen how my past actions had such a dramatic effect on the investors in my fund, my family, and all those I cared about. As an ambitious kid growing up, it was always my dream to be a star on Wall Street. From my teenage years, I because self-taught in the stock market, spending every free moment trying to learn as much as I can. During my third year in law school at the age of 24, I launched my own firm, finally seeing the results of my hard work, while also seeing riches within sight. The launch of my fund gave me an instant feel of success, something that I allowed to build up my own ego and view of myself. But when problems started occurring in the form of small trading losses in my firm’s early years, I continued to evaluate my self-worth based on the poor results of my firm. In complete denial that I was not the star on the Street I hoped to be, I made the horrible choice to manipulate the results I reported to investors. Over the ensuing years, the small loss I covered up, snowballed into losses that exceeded $10 million, which all came from the pockets of individuals who trusted me. Each day while in, I carry a tremendous amount of guilt for my actions. However, even more prevalent is the battle I have looking in the mirror, which illustrates the level of shame I have as well.

Everyone has a different interpretation of the value of guilt. Some view guilt as something that weighs down on us, seeing it as something we need to rid ourselves of. However, in my view, guilt is not necessarily a bad thing to feel. Guilt allows us to understand that our actions had negative consequences, and allow us to have remorse. Through guilt, we can understand the ramifications of our choices, and actually feel bad about them, which could serve as a deterrence from making future poor choices. For me, the past three years have been navigated with guilt. I see each day how my family struggles without my presence. I witness the strife of people that were directly affected by my crime. While this guilt can weigh heavy on my psyche, I have found effective ways to utilize this guilt, and harness it towards making things right. It supports my mission to make it up to those I affected.

When feelings of guilt arise, the feeling of shame can also often rear its head. Shame involves taking that guilt, and applying it to your own self-image and view of yourself. Shame can result in someone feeling inferior to others and shatter belief in themselves. It can be dehumanizing. Every day, I feel the guilt, and is likely something I will feel for the rest of my life. But there are days where I feel so shameful for my past actions, that I hate looking at myself in the mirror. I take my past actions and label myself as completely scum or garbage for those actions. It is a true self-defeating thought process. Where guilt can serve a valuable purpose in pushing you to overcome the problem that led to that guilt, shame can actually handcuff efforts in your desire to bounce back.

As I work each day towards redeeming myself for my actions, I find myself walking this tightrope between guilt and shame. Guilt has been a powerful motivator for me, pushing me past my limits of comfort in an effort to make it up to those I affected. Many of the people directed impacted by my crime may not be aware of what I am doing to make things right, but my own belief in the steps I take each day gives me confidence in my end goal. At the same time, I continually make a conscious effort to fend off feelings of shame, that continues to linger. I see how that shame inhibits my progress and slows me down in my end goal. While I am an extremely positive person by nature, my past actions often have a direct impact on my self-image. Reflecting on how my greed and ego led to such dire consequences has been valuable in teaching me so much. But, I still need to focus on not letting those actions define who I am as a person. Now that I have seen progress in the direction of making things right, I hope those feelings of shame become more infrequent. I am so committed in my mission to reconcile with society, and plan to harness this guilt I feel towards earning a second chance.

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