Jump to the following topics:
- What is guilt?
- What is the value of
- Why does guilt hurt?
- Techniques for
What is guilt? It is an "alarm
mechanism" by which we become aware that we have violated our values.
What is the value of
- 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
- It encourages us to study our motivations and values.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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:
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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).
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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