A new study finds two thirds of people experience feelings of guilt or shame during a psilocybin trip, and a third felt more shame after the trip.
A new study from David Mathai et al at Johns Hopkins measured 679 people’s feelings of guilt and shame before during and after they took psilocybin in naturalistic settings. The authors tell us:
Most users (89.7%) described their experience of psilocybin as positive, though acute feelings of shame or guilt were commonly reported (i.e., 68.2% of users) and difficult to predict. Ratings of participant ability to constructively work through these feelings predicted wellbeing 2-4 weeks after psilocybin use. Psilocybin on average produced a small but significant decrease in trait shame that was maintained 2-3 months after use. Trait shame increased in a notable minority (29.8%) of participants.
So more than two thirds of participants felt guilt and / or shame during their trip, and almost a third felt increased shame after the trip. That’s a lot.
A friend of mine criticized the study for arguably inducing these feelings rather than measuring them - if you give people shame and guilt surveys before and after a trip, of course an unusually high number of them will report such feelings. Nonetheless, I think the paper touches on an important topic that’s under-explored in psychedelic research.
First, what’s the difference between shame and guilt? That’s not an easy question, but one way of thinking about it is that shame is a feeling of being judged by other humans, while guilt is a reaction either to one’s own conscience or to a perceived supernatural judge. Shame could also be a more generalized emotion while guilt, usually, is a response to a specific action. But these are not hard-and-fast distinctions and scholars dispute these definitions.
Let’s consider how guilt and shame might play out in people’s challenging psychedelic experiences. Here are three real examples from our own research.
1) John took LSD at a rave. Afterwards, while still high, he went to an afterparty with people he didn’t know very well. He started to feel cripplingly self-conscious and frozen, like he was causing a scene by his lack of social interaction. He says he felt paranoia, social anxiety, and a crippling feeling of shame. He went home, and the next day felt so ashamed of his behaviour that he went back to apologise to the host of the afterparty, who was bewildered by the apology. John’s feelings of shame, paranoia and social anxiety continued afterwards, and ended up lasting for years.
2) Louis took a large dose of mushrooms on his own. During his trip, he felt like he was facing some sort of cosmic test in order to be liberated from hell. He felt he failed this test, and as a result was cursed by God. Although he came through the trip and felt he reached some sort of resolution, he still felt shaken by this deep sense of having been cursed by God, and wondered if it would have any effects beyond the trip.
3) On a mushroom trip, Ron received the message or insight that he should get back together with his girlfriend. He did so, but then broke up with her again. On his next mushroom trip, Ron became convinced that his mother had died, and it was his fault for having broken up with his girlfriend. He felt he had somehow ‘broken the contract’ made on the first trip. After the trip, various things went wrong in his life or others’ lives, and he felt they were his fault. His feelings of guilt continued beyond the trip.
There are similarities in these three trips –the ego has not dissolved into a blissful cosmic soup of oneness. Rather, it feels exposed, small, vulnerable, and somehow guilty and wrong. But there are differences too. The second and third trips could be defined as ‘guilt trips’ – the ego cowers and trembles before a supernatural judge (God, the universe, the mushroom spirit), who punishes it for some perceived moral transgression. The first trip, by contrast, could perhaps be defined as a ‘shame trip’. In this trip, other people have become the all-powerful God before whom the individual trembles.
These various sorts of experience were common in our own survey of extended post-psychedelic difficulties, which will shortly be published in PLOS One (pre-print available here). 7% of responses were themed as mentioning ‘shame or guilt’, 5% were themed as ‘social anxiety’ and 11% were themed as expressing ‘paranoia’; 5% were themed as ‘fear of hell / the afterlife’; another 5% were themed as ‘feeling vulnerable / unsafe’, and 9% were themed as ‘sense of disempowerment or diminished self’. Here’s one example of that last theme:
This specific trip was hard for me because I was suddenly filled with self loathing and disgust. I literally wanted to crawl out of my skin and every time I spoke I could only think about how dumb I sounded. At the time I was 17 so I simply blamed it on taking too many mushrooms but obviously now I see it was an issue of self esteem. After the trip I felt really gross and kept hoping things would go back to normal but they didn't. I felt gross about vaping and using drugs. I felt gross for not being authentic. I still struggle with those issues now but psychedelics really force you to confront that kind of thing.
This sort of self-accusation and self-loathing is perhaps not how one typically thinks of a ‘spiritual experience’ in modern western culture – we may imagine them as more blissful and euphoric.
But feelings of guilt, contrition and moral atonement have a central place in the global history of religious experiences, especially in Judeo-Christianity. The Psalms of King David involve a lot of groaning for David’s sins:
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long…
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
In modern Christianity, religious experiences often follow a particular pattern – a painful recognition of one’s sin, a flood of weeping and contrition and begging for divine mercy, then a sense of forgiveness and liberation through God’s grace. One participant in the Great Hebridean Revival of 1949, Mary Peckham, was asked whether the revival was one big ecstatic party. She replied ‘absolutely not!’
Mary went on to explain how she remembered vividly the great conviction of sin and the awfulness of confronting it. The conviction came from the Holy Spirit who literally stopped Mary in her tracks as she walked home from a youth meeting that evening. She fell prostrate before God in deep repentance, crying out to her Saviour Jesus Christ for forgiveness. Then, and only then, did she know deep within her heart that she had received his forgiveness through the cleansing blood of Jesus and had been set free from her old life. At that point, joy and peace flooded her being in a way that changed her life forever.
New Age spirituality, from which western psychedelic culture largely emerges, has rejected the Christian notion of ‘original sin’ and this model of contrition and repentance. In New Age spirituality, the self is innocent, pure, natural, and perfect, and ‘waking up’ means letting go of your ego-illusions and realizing your essential divinity and connection to a perfect nature and cosmos. It is what William James called a ‘religion of healthy mindedness’ – optimistic, cheerful, and lacking much sense of sin or evil. If you google ‘spiritual experience’, you get these sorts of images of an expansive, Romantic, euphoric experience:
That’s what one comes across quite often in psychedelic culture, particularly in the acid perennialism of, say, Bill Richards at Johns Hopkins – you’re OK, everything in the universe is OK, evil is an illusion, let go of the ‘guilt trip’ man, everything is groovy!
But William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, noted there was another sort of religious attitude and religious experience, which he called ‘the religion of the sick soul’. For some people, he wrote, ‘evil is something more radical and general, a wrongness or vice in his essential nature, which no alteration of the environment or any superficial rearrangement of the inner self, can cure, and which requires a supernatural remedy’.
One sees this sort of ‘religion of the sick soul’ in Alcoholics Anonymous, which took inspiration from James’ theory. In AA’s theology, the first step is for the addict to admit that they are powerless in the face of the demon ‘alcoholism’. The second step is to turn to ‘a Power greater than them’ and atone to that Power. They must do a moral accounting of themselves, bravely face every sin and wrong-doing, and make amends for ‘the exact nature of our wrongs’. Only after this process of contrition and repentance are they ready for God to ‘remove all these defects of character’ so they can receive the grace of the Higher Power and be saved.
In some religious cultures, the contrition and atonement can take the form of bodily mortification – fasting during Lent, for example, or (in some Catholic cultures) walking barefoot, bearing the cross, even wearing chains or whipping oneself. The self is considered so sick, so sinful, that the body needs to be punished or even mutilated (the followers of the Roman cult of Cybele castrated themselves and dressed in women’s clothing).
One occasionally comes across aspects of this contrition-atonement-deliverance pattern in psychedelic culture, particularly perhaps in addiction therapy. I think of iboga addiction treatment, which apparently leads to a 24-hour trip in which the tripper undergoes a ‘life review’, experiencing every time they’ve fucked up in agonising detail until finally the self decides to atone and mend their ways. That could be an example of a healthy ‘guilt trip’.
One also encounters the Jungian idea that psychedelics ‘help you confront your shadow or your culture’s shadow’ – the conventionally shameful parts of you or your culture that you have denied or ignored, which need to be confronted, recognized, and accepted in your journey to self-knowledge and self-actualization. That could involve a confrontation with the shadow of your family’s dark history, or your nation’s history of imperialism, or your species’ ecological impact. This sort of shadow-confrontation could be morally helpful, leading to a new moral humility.
Nonetheless, clearly some ‘guilt trips’ and ‘shame trips’ are not helpful or conducive to moral growth. Rather, they involve a misplaced or nebulous sense of guilt and shame, not attached to genuine wrong-doing, in which the feelings of guilt and shame far exceed any appropriate response and can end up crippling the person for days, months or years. People can – like Louis or Ron – have a vague yet visceral sense of taboo infringement for which they deserve to be punished. Occasionally people physically harm themselves while tripping, because they feel so rotten to the core.
What can one take away from this? At the most basic level, it’s not a good idea to trip on your own, because you can never be certain your mind might not take off in some weird direction and you decide you are the worst person in the universe.
But secondly, we (psychedelic culture) need to think about how this ancient cultural pattern of ‘sin-contrition-repentance’ can arise during trips even in non-religious people, and how therapists might guide it in healthy as opposed to unhealthy directions. In some ways, therapy is a secular form of confession and atonement, and in psychedelic therapy, the supernatural roots of therapy can re-emerge.
The psychedelic renaissance has been accompanied by an ‘archaic revival’ of beliefs in animism, magic, spirits and demons. We should remember that the pre-modern cultures are often deeply superstitious, in which poor helpless humans felt attacked by spiritual forces they barely perceived for transgressions they didn’t fully understand. They turned to priests to exorcise their demons - and sometimes to human sacrifice.
That’s the dark side of the ‘archaic revival’. That’s why Carl Sagan criticized New Age spirituality and insisted we should leave behind the ‘demon haunted world’. I have some sympathy with this view, and some suspicion of the shamanic revival.
And yet if we did finally give up our belief in Gods and demons, would we not invent new gods to cower beneath? One can placate God with atonement. But ‘the Public’? An all-together more terrifying deity.
After the paywall – invites to two free online events, consequences for an unethical psychedelic psychiatrist, and a response to the passing of Roland Griffiths, one of the most significant figures in the renaissance.
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