How a Guilt Quilt is Built
By Ewa Schwarz, of OnlineCounseling.org
Many people experience subjective, or emotional, guilt on a regular basis. There are many theories about guilt and it is classified into different categories, depending on the explanation of how it is part of the human psyche. One common belief is that guilt helps people determine when they have done something wrong. Guilt can also be a result of one's religious beliefs, tied into one's personal values.
Guilt can be a harmful mechanism used to control the emotions of other humans and thereby retain power over them. Yet we do not need guilt to identify right from wrong and all the grey areas in between. We have the ability to raise our personal awareness to the level where we know when a behavior needs to change, no guilt required.
Religious guilt is particularly harmful and detrimental to human growth. It is directly linked to a person being labeled "good" or "bad". In some religions, people are considered to be born "guilty". No amount of good human behavior can erase that, so what is a person left with? A lifetime of feeling bad about themselves. That is not what the human experience is about. It is about the freedom to develop your personal value from the inside as opposed to the external value placed on what you do.
Some people are taught that unless they act and think in a certain way, then they will never be able to create value for themselves. Guilt makes sure that they are forever in spiritual debt. If that is your individual choice that you chose with eyes wide open, then honor that choice. Yet the nature of guilt is that it is initially placed on us by somebody else and is used to suppress questioning and growth. Realistically, unless you can question everything, how real can that kind of growth be? Spiritual growth is about the freedom to choose.
Guilt is developed in such a way that it builds upon itself and ends up "blanketing" a person and smothering their identity. If guilt builds big enough, it leads to depression and a catch-22 situation where a person cannot recover from the spiritual debt that they imagine themselves to be in. This is a guilt quilt and anyone that has experienced guilt over and over knows this feeling.
Guilt starts when we are children. Our parents, and other influential adults in our lives, tell us we are bad when we do something wrong (or not) and/or inform us that there are religious consequences for our actions combined with threats on our soul. Parents being what they are, they use guilt to also try and make their parenting easier, not seeing any harm in using fear to discourage behaviors they don't want their children to have.
The problem is that as children, we receive very mixed messages. Many parents are inconsistent in their communication and the messages can change from day to day or even minute to minute. For children who are soaking up knowledge like little sponges, this is a critical time where we develop our belief systems. We carry all this information that we learn well into adulthood. Even as children, we start the process of judging ourselves the way our parents and others have taught us. We spend the rest of our lives being self critical and going through endless cycles of action/thought, negative self judgment, self punishment, and atonement that never really erases our debt and therefore becomes an increasingly heavy burden to carry.
When you logically look at guilt, it typically hurts a person. The test is: does guilt make you feel happy or good about yourself? If it is a fleeting motivator that acts as a signal to change one's behavior, then that is normal. If it remains within you and nags at you and causes you to feel bad about yourself, it is an unhealthy form of guilt.
If you are a guilt-ridden person, what can you do to take apart this guilt quilt? It starts with the center square, the core of your belief system. That is where the quilt was initially started and then added on to, one small square at a time. Redefine your understanding of guilt to know that it has been used for centuries, without judging it and knowing that it is not personal to you. It is what it is and your focus needs to be on removing it one piece at a time from your psyche. Anytime you feel guilty about something, you need to go through a step by step process of stripping it of any energy and stopping it from having any power over you.
You will have to commit to redefining your perception of guilt each and every time you encounter it. Your power lies in your understanding how you experience guilt and then changing your perception about it to lift the pressure off of you. This process takes time and a bulldog-like determination to not let it win. Your progress will vary from day to day and even from minute to minute, depending on your other life challenges.
The first step lies in questioning what you were taught. This alone can create a flow of strong guilt. The act of questioning the people who put so much effort into caring for you can be overwhelming. The act of questioning the morality you were taught can be blasphemous and this alone is enough to stop you from even trying. You have a choice, right here and right now. If you want to stop the pain, then you must question.
Whatever faith, religion or belief system you have will strengthen, not weaken, as a result of your efforts. You need to understand that you were essentially taught only one person's version about life, which may or may not be precise. There is a wide range of beliefs even within your specific belief system. Allow yourself to consider that your beliefs can be slightly altered to become more mainstream. Guilt was never intended to hurt you, but to give you direction for your actions.
Whatever your version of God is, ultimately He is a forgiving God and an unconditionally loving one. Punishment should be left up to Him. By going through the process of endlessly punishing yourself, then you actually move yourself away from God. For those of you that don't relate to a strong religious connection, understand that anytime guilt causes a negative feeling within you, then there is room for change within you.
You are never a bad person. A person's behavior is not who they are. Guilt mixes up the two and says that because the behavior is bad, therefore so is the person. That is illogical. A human being experiences life and grows through trial and error. That is the intention of our being alive. We strive to become better human beings based on the result of our experiences. We need to make mistakes in order to grow. Choosing to believe in guilt is the equivalent of holding your own head underwater spiritually. You cannot breath and you cannot grow closer to God.
It is important to really own what is being said here. This gives you the strength and the opening to shift your beliefs. That is all that guilt is, a misplaced and misunderstood belief. Somewhere along the way, somebody took false liberty in the use of guilt. How you feel is the result of somebody else's mistake. You do not need to pay the price for somebody else's lack of good judgment. You can stop your hurtful cycle of guilt by simply being open to changing your concept of it.
For the next month, I want all "guilty" people (whether you experience once a year or every day) to do the following. This first step is very simple and non-threatening and anyone can choose to do this. Anytime you have a guilty feeling, ask yourself "Why?" Whatever answer comes to mind, ask "Why?" again. Keep this up until your brain runs out of answers to your "Why's". Observe how your brain works and how it processes information regarding guilt. You will need to understand yourself before you can change yourself.
Keep a diary on the paths that your thinking follows and the conclusions to your questioning. After a few days, you will start to notice patterns in your thinking. This is an important step if you want to change any part of yourself. Consider yourself to be an unwavering hunter. You must first fully understand the quarry that you eventually want to catch.
There is another thing that I would like you to do, and that is to say to yourself at the end of every line of questioning: "Well, maybe that is not exactly true". Say this to yourself whether you believe it or not. The brain acts mechanically and this portion of it needs to be met on that level with a predesignated, mechanical response. By raising doubts within it, it opens the door to hope. By opening the door to hope, you open the door that allows you to consider change.
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