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Guilt, Shame and Public Life

Several public figures passed away last week, including Ed McMahon, Billy Mays, Farrah Fawcett and of course, Michael Jackson. Each of them made a difference for people and we don’t have to go into how they were important. The point is, they were and will remain important for years to come.

When I consider the tragic life that Michael Jackson led, and how he told his former wife, Lisa Marie Presley, that he was afraid he would die the way her father Elvis did, one wonders how many other people have had the internal struggles that Jackson did.

People get addicted to innumerable things. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, sex, shopping, video games—each is problematic and each can lead to destruction. But in Jackson’s case it was a combination of problems. He struggled with self-esteem issues borne from his childhood. He was anorexic, weighing a reported 112 pounds at autopsy (he was 5’10” tall). He was addicted to pain medications and was under the stress of having been in the public eye since he was 10 years old. That makes 40 years of worldwide scrutiny. He would have been 51 on August 29th. It’s no wonder that he was a tormented and emotionally devastated artist.

Even Elvis was old enough to understand what was going on when he first performed. Michael Jackson could not have known what it meant to become the sensation that the Jackson Five became. We can assume that he had a ball performing as a child. At least one would think so. But the stories of abuse and the chronic stress of being better than his last performance or his latest recording took its toll. He was a perfectionist. Many of us claim to be perfectionists, but we really aren’t. Not in the way that he was. Everything he did was examined by everyone, regardless of whether they had the credentials to criticize. That’s the nature of art, however. Everyone’s a critic and few are experts, but we judge nonetheless.

Many people can relate to Jackson’s problems. I see patients who are equally as tormented as he was, perhaps without the public scrutiny. But those who have suffered abuse, neglect, and tragedy can understand better than most of us how much pain he must have suffered. There is a constant internal dialogue in people who suffer. Some are optimistic, some pessimistic, some cynical. Michael Jackson appeared to be the optimist. Witness his California ranch, named Neverland after the story of Peter Pan. At Neverland, boys never have to grow up, never have to face the real world as awful as it can be. They are protected, kept away from those who would cause harm.

His predators were those close to him, much as they are for others who have suffered similar trauma. The “rag sheets” or gossip papers may have caused him pain, but he denied that they mattered to him. No, it was those he trusted, those he had to remain close to, who eventually caused his downfall.

We become obsessed with our looks when we are children. We learn about guilt and shame, two very different things. Guilt is about having done something for which we may deserve consequences. Shame is socially based and has nothing to do with guilt. We can be ashamed of the color of our eyes, despite having done nothing wrong to make them whatever color they are. Michael Jackson certainly appeared to be ashamed of how he looked.

Of what are you ashamed, having done nothing to deserve this feeling? Your nose, your body? What is this shame based on?

Where do we first learn shame? Probably about the time we were being potty-trained. Think about it: Parents may not mean to implant these feelings, but the “yucky” face they showed when we made a stinky, or the disappointment they expressed when we broke something sunk in. It may not have been our fault. We may have dropped the milk, just trying to be “grown up.”

Or, how about this: Boys who are crying often hear “you need to be a man. Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” Wow. How does a 5-year-old even understand what that means except that it’s shameful for him to cry?

Michael Jackson may have been a famous man, but he was also deeply troubled, just like many “normal” people. He could have overcome his troubles, but unfortunately, his money may not only have insulated him from help, but attracted people who only wanted to use him and not protect him. There were many people who loved him, but he couldn’t seem to understand and love himself enough. And that seems to be at the root of many of our troubles, even if we aren’t famous.

Guilt, Shame and Public Life

Diana L. Walcutt, Ph.D

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APA Reference
Walcutt, D. (2018). Guilt, Shame and Public Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 6 Jul 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.