We often use “shameless” to describe those they aren’t bound by rules of decency or conscience. I think this gets it exactly wrong.

Guilt is the belief that we did something wrong. Shame is the belief that we are wrong. Guilt is often a powerful and necessary tool for growth. Shame always corrodes change.

Those we describe as “shameless” don’t feel guilt. They don’t reflect on themselves, feel bad about wrongdoings, and then push themselves to grow into something better, as guilt asks. No, they act as if they are incapable and unworthy of good things or growth. They do what they know to be terrible, because that’s what some part of them believes they are.

They aren’t shameless. They are overcome with and debilitated by shame. For society to truly heal, they need our compassion too, perhaps more than anyone.

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