dealing with guilt

the last thought in yesterday’s entry on the series on guilt was joy trebilcot’s words that in identity guilt – the type of guilt we feel because of who we are, not because of what we’ve done – “we imagine that we are in a rational system where we can be tried … and then work off our debt … but we’re not in that system.”

that’s true. when people feel guilty for who they are, they are locked up in a prison of endless extortion, not in a just system where one pays for one’s wrongdoings and then gets to start life all over again.

my buddhist influence tells me that this is a prison of maya, an illusory prison.

short of becoming a buddhist, there are some questions that can be asked and actions that can be taken to break out of this prison:

this is something that works step-by-step; it’s almost like math: if you skip a step, chances are you’ll come up with an answer that won’t serve you.

have i indeed done harm?
reflect and write your answer.

if yes, who has been harmed? and exactly how?
reflect and write your answer. there may be more than one person, and the harms may be different for each person. it may also be an animal, a plant, an institution, the environment. don’t forget to consider that you might have harmed yourself.

with whom can i discuss this?
find someone trustworthy to discuss this with. the benefits of doing that are endless. there is a reason why confession is such an important part of the catholic church – humans have a strong need to unburden themselves.

what steps have i already taken to make amends?
write a list of these steps, even the small ones. not infrequently, people carry around guilt for things that they have already made amends for.

what further steps can i reasonably take to make further amends?
again, you can write a list. don’t forget the word “reasonably”. you may want to refer to the thoughts on the appropriate “portion” of responsibility i discussed in a previous post.

which of these steps will i take or at least start today?
guilt is only useful to the degree that it motivates us to act. give yourself the gift of moving from guilt to action. if you have determined that you indeed need to make more amends, do something today, even if it’s really small, to make things better.

having taken all these actions, how do i feel?
reflect and write. if you have done all you can for today and still feel guilty, allow yourself to recognize that you are experiencing a feeling that is a consequence of something that happened but it is not the harm or trauma itself. the windstorm and the broken window is not the same. the windstorm is over and you have no control over it. but you can pick up the glass and fix the window. look at the brokenness – do you still need it? what are those shards? shame, hurt, disappointment? do you still need them? if so, do something productive with them. if not, throw them out!

if this is something you’d like some help with, give me a buzz.


this is part of a series on guilt:
two types of guilt
identity guilt and opression
guilt, cheney and guantanamo bay
more on guilt and responsibility
understanding guilt: is it useful?
alternative thought records, part II
headaches, families and guilt

6 thoughts on “dealing with guilt

  1. merelyme

    this really is an excellent post. so much of guilt is irrational and…out of our control. i think i would like to try this exercise.

    i would like to invite you to read and comment on my latest post about depression. there is a rather interesting comment which demonstrates the need for more education about mental health issues.

    merelyme’s last blog post..yowsers!

  2. isabella mori

    let me know how the exercise goes, merelyme!

    i hope the comment i made on your blog appears again – right now it looks like it got eaten up.

    yes, there needs to be soooo much more education about depression. but also more compassion.

    or maybe compassion should always come first.

    and now i’m thinking how guilt, depression and compassion connect with each other … another post, i guess!

  3. marja bergen

    That’s true, Isabella. I think a lot of people who are experiencing depression feel very guilty about it – guilty about not being able to meet their commitments, guilty about the way they feel, guilty about not doing anything. That guilt is part of what makes depression such a bummer. It would make a good post.

    marja bergen’s last blog post..Getting rid of junk

  4. isabella mori

    … and guilt often has a “felt quality” similar to depression: it curls in on itself, a seemingly inescapable circle. unless guilt drives us to action, there’s nothing open, generous and expansive about it.

    also, come to think of it, guilt tends to lead to self punishment and there are many people who think that is one of the causes of depression.

  5. Donna D

    How do you deal with guilt over past mistakes you made raising your kids? When I see them making mistakes in their lives, I tend to blame myself for bad parenting.

  6. isabella mori

    thanks for your comment, donna.

    have you tried the process that i described above?

    i know it isn’t easy. i myself have had to deal with this. guilt in regard to parenting is probably one of the most frequently found types of guilt, and it runs very deep.

    you know what, i should write something about this in the near future. perhaps we can email a little about it privately, and then we can together turn it into something of use to my readers here, what do you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *