Guilt vs. shame in an age of sexual indulgence

One of the greatest challenges facing persons who experience same-sex attraction is the conflict between what the secular world tells us will bring us happiness, and our interior feelings. The world sends out messages that we should act upon whatever impulses we feel, as the pursuit of those desires is where real satisfaction is found. This belief is at the root of the “hook up culture” – an idea that self-indulgent, casual sexual liaisons is the mark of a healthy and mature society, liberated from the stifling restrictions of an outdated Victorian-esque morality or an antiquated set of religious constraints.

The truth is that sexual promiscuity is neither liberating nor healthy, no matter how much the secular world may glamorize it. What tends to accompany sexual promiscuity, is a sense of internal unrest, which may not be fully recognized by the secular world, but is understood by a Catholic anthropology to be guilt. Guilt is not a bad thing. It ought not be to ignored or numbed, but instead can be viewed as the “Check Engine” light of the soul. If we experience a sense of guilt after engaging in a certain type of behavior, perhaps that behavior does not fit with our inherent dignity as a person made in God’s image and likeness. Guilt can be a call to action, that nagging realization that what we are pursuing will not truly bring us flourishing, or a fulfilling connection, or whatever it is that we fundamentally seek. But guilt inadequately addressed, can shift into feelings of shame.

One way of understanding the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is when we feel bad for something we have done. We feel guilt when we hurt a loved one, or are dishonest at work, or lash out at someone unprovoked. We recognize that what we have done is wrong and that recognition causes internal distress based on our actions or choices. Shame, however, occurs when we view our actions or choices as being wrong, but then internalize that sense of wrongdoing to such a point that we start to view ourselves as fundamentally wrong or bad. Here the internal distress stems from a view that we, not just our actions, are flawed, broken, or inappropriate. This sense of shame can cause us to feel unworthy of being loved, or believe that we do not deserve anything other than loneliness. An overwhelming sense of shame can provoke such self-loathing, that we seek solace in the very activity that caused us to feel shame in the first place. For example, a young man who regularly views pornography feels guilt about his choices. However, this guilt brings with it a sense of shame as the young man begins to believe that his use of pornography would cause him to be rejected by others if they knew about his pornography use. He starts to see himself as unworthy of having healthy relationships, which fills him with frustration, increased loneliness, and despair. And in that despair, he seeks to numb his pain by viewing pornography. The cycle continues and worsens.

However, there is a distinction between the person (who we are) and the action (what we do). This distinction is often ignored in the modern world. In holding a Catholic worldview, we can understand that the goodness and dignity of the person is present even in the event that the choices being made by that person are not themselves objectively good. We can judge the rightness or wrongness of an action while not calling into question whether the person himself is fundamentally good. Similarly, we have the ability to love the person even when we are unable to condone his behaviors or choices, such as when those choices may involve sexual behaviors that are not in line with God’s plan for human sexuality – such as promiscuity or consumption of pornography.

If, in that experience of guilt, we are able to acknowledge that a certain behavior may be standing in opposition to our pursuit of health and flourishing, we have the ability to make a different choice. The ability to move away from the self-centered, pleasure seeking, or broken motives driving promiscuity, and instead move toward chastity can address the behaviors that, while aimed at pursing happiness cause us to feel more alone and isolated from others in our life.


Dr. Horne is Director of Clinical Services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS) in 2009, where he specialized in child therapy and wrote his doctoral dissertation on violent video games and their impact on the player. Prior to pursuing his doctorate, Dr. Horne worked in television at KVR9 in Austin, Texas and Houston PBS. Dr. Horne has experience working in several Catholic mental health clinics including Catholic Social Services in Lincoln, Nebraska and the Alpha Omega Clinic in Fairfax. He has also had the opportunity to serve as a school counselor within the Diocese of Arlington. He is the author of The Tech Talk: Strategies for Families in a Digital World (Our Sunday Visitor, 2017). Dr. Horne and his wife, Kara, live in Fredericksburg with their three children and are parishioners at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. (Bio taken from the Diocese of Arlington website)

(1) Comments
  1. This article was very helpful and would be very helpful for a lot of people. I’ll share it with some of my friends. Thank you.

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