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Guilt

Jump to the following topics:

  1. What is guilt?  
  2. What is the value of guilt?  
  3. Why does guilt hurt?  
  4. Techniques for managing guilt.  


What is guilt? It is an "alarm mechanism" by which we become aware that we have violated our values.  


What is the value of guilt?  

  1. It serves the purpose of human survival. The pain guides us away from behavior which threatens that survival; i.e., it threatens the fulfillment of our values which ideally are supportive to our life. Rather than being a "negative" experience, it is a constructive advisor which directs us toward social harmony, accountability, and our ideals of self and community. It is allied with our conscience -- and our ethics and morality, which are the organization of the standards of the personal conscience.
  2. It encourages us to study our motivations and values.
  3. It prods us to investigate our religious standards. It reminds us that humans are not gods, that we are never perfect; this reminder is the basis of a realistic humility, a knowledge of our human boundaries -- and the sensible strategic decision to rely on a source of power and guidance that is greater than our own.
  4. It allows us to avoid the greater guilt. That greater guilt is the denial that we have committed an infraction. Many times, parents will "forgive and forget" when a child breaks a rule and then confesses to the wrong-doing; the more severe punishment awaits the child who is caught and then tells lies to deny the act.


Why does guilt hurt? The pain is the tension which is caused by the remnant of energy which has not been expressed; we made less of an effort -- exerted less energy -- than we ideally could have done, and the difference between our action and our capability is equivalent to the distress that we feel. Similar to any other type of restrained energy, this energy causes discomfort until it is released -- perhaps by "making amends" or by apologizing.


Techniques for managing guilt.  

  1. Don't make yourself suffer from guilt. Guilt is feedback; the information is simply to be acted on -- perhaps changing our behavior and making amends. Because guilt is nothing but a psychological mechanism, there is neither logic nor "virtue" in dwelling on the pain or intensifying it. This is true also in religious systems; to dwell on our guilt is a denial of grace. And in the Eastern-religion concept of "karma," there is the impersonal action of reparation and behavioral change (with no value placed on the self-punishment of "feeling guilty"). If we dwell on the feeling of guilt, we are distracted from those duties of reparation and behavioral change; then our natural rebellion against the additional pain makes us rebel against the legitimate guilt itself, and we are thus less likely to perform those duties.
  2. We can explore our values. Guilt arises when we violate those values. If the values are not realistic, we might be feeling guilt needlessly. Inappropriate guilt can be caused by idealiztic perfectionism (personal or religious), an inflated sense of responsibility (in which we have taken on the burden of another person -- or the whole world -- and inevitably failed), pleasure which seems undeserved (particularly in contrast to other people's misery). If we develop reasonable values, guilt provides an accurate and useful form of internal feedback. Guilt might arise from various categories of values:
    • Religious belief. Our conscience notifies us when we have violated the values which we have accepted from our religion or from inner promptings that we sense are from our soul or "higher self."
    • The psyche. Jung said that the conscience is an innate part of the psyche; its purpose is to sustain psychological balance and wholeness, thus keeping us on track toward inner growth and individuation.
    • External rules. Freud believed that the conscience develops in response to society's restrictions; we are externalizing the limitations which have been imposed from outside. Young children are capable of feeling remorse for acts which apparently violate their natural sense of "right and wrong," but one task in parenting is to teach additional behavioral guidelines that have been established by society's (and the parents') expectations.
    • Our own standards. We might still be carrying unwarranted feelings of guilt from our childhood when our parents used it as a way to control us and punish us (i.e., hurt us); as adults, we can question the standards against which we were judged and decide whether we want to use those same standards (which may or may not be valid for us). In the individuation process, we develop a personal conscience, and we can do this only by challenging the values that have been imposed by other people. When this conscience becomes a sincere expression of our deliberated values, it does not need to be justified to anyone.
  3. Don't feel guilty for having "negative" thoughts and feelings. Our thoughts and feelings arise spontaneously and honestly; it is then our responsibility to decide whether to act on them. If they seem inappropriate or disturbing, we must still acknowledge them, and perhaps try to understand their source ("Why do I feel this way?"). To feel guilty about the thoughts or feelings themselves is to condemn and repress both our spontaneity (the natural impulses of our life) and honesty (our respect for the reality of our psyche).
  4. Maintain your self-esteem. Guilt is the result of a particular action; a "bad" action does not make us a "bad" person. When we allow guilt to make us see ourselves as "bad", we are likely to play out this role by continuing the behavior; our guilt is then compounded and our self-esteem is further injured. To regain our self-esteem, we need to, again, change our behavior and make amends -- and thus live up to the values on which self-esteem is based.
  5. Forgive yourself.
  6. Realize that the action was the best that we could have done at the time. No matter what we did, it seemed like the best approach then, considering our view of the options, our skills in managing such a circumstance, our emotional state, and the other psychological and situational factors. We could not have done anything other than what we did. This is not an excuse, and it is not a release from the obligation of reparation; it is a realistically compassionate acknowledgment of our imperfect humanity. We are always doing the best we can, however indelicately.
  7. Understand why you did the action. Even the most violent, destructive, or vengeful act is motivated by a constructive goal. For any deed, we might see several motivations -- all malicious -- but if we keep looking, there is a reason that is based on a desire to defend our rights, or to regain self-esteem, or to accomplish another beneficial intent. That was our motivation; the other "reasons" were just the thoughts that we considered while trying to find the real drive. The destructiveness of our act was caused by our inability to clarify the the goal (and to devise a less-obtrusive tactic), and perhaps by the intensity of the emotion overwhelming our sensitivity and rationality. No motivation for an act -- from a stranger's rude comment to the atrocities of Adolph Hitler -- seeks brutality for the sake of brutality; there is always a positive goal. This "understanding," however, does not pardon the offense that has been committed; it merely helps us to comprehend the underlying psychological dynamics.
  8. Learn from your guilt. Guilt contains messages about our values, motivations, social skills, emotional tendencies, and so on. As we study these messages, we might think about "how we might have handled the situation better", to gain some insight and competence which will help us to act in a more productive manner when trying to achieve the same goal in similar circumstances in the future.
  9. Accept responsibility for your actions. This is respect for reality; we did what we did, and we cannot change the past. Accepting responsibility can be a simple acknowledgement when guilt's pain gives us a plain message of our accountability. But we recoil from this message if we know that we will use it to attack our self-esteem and to cause ourselves other types of additional pain. It is not the guilt itself that makes us dodge the acceptance; it is the further pain that we inflict on ourselves. Our psyche reacts to this assault instinctively with a disavowal of responsibility for the act; the psyche can accept the discomfort of the guilt itself, but it will not tolerate the supplementary suffering, so it protects us through denial.
  10. Repair the damage. Guilt is assuaged when we confirm our values by resolving to change our behavior and by making reparations. These reparations might include paying back any ill-gotten money, or offering an apology, or taking another action that would restore the dignity all involved (including ourselves).

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