understanding guilt: is it useful?

what is guilt? we usually think that guilt is a feeling. however, it is not a primary emotion like fear or happiness, sadness or even shame. it is more complex. when joe feels guilt over having forgotten his and mary’s wedding anniversary, a number of things happen.

  • he needs to have a basic concept of right and wrong. e.g., hurting people is wrong.
  • he becomes aware that he has done something that hurt someone (i.e. forgetting the anniversary hurts mary’s feelings; it makes her wonder whether their marriage is all that important to him)
  • at that point an almost physical shock can set in, which is probably the reason why we call guilt a feeling. this is because
  • the awareness of having hurt someone brings shame (“i shouldn’t have done that; it is unacceptable in my community/culture) and/or compassion (“i don’t’ want her to hurt”)

now the question is, where does all of this lead? there are numerous possibilities. among the more ideal scenarios are

  • apologizing
  • promises of restitution or restoration (“i’ll make it up to you; let’s go to whistler next weekend and celebrate”)
  • resolve (“this won’t happen again”)
  • action – they actually do go to whistler, and/or he puts the event into his day timer for next year, in big red letters

these are all ways that show responsibility. but sometimes guilt also leads to

  • procrastination – “i feel awful right now, let’s wait until i feel better”
  • aggression and isolation – research has shown people can turn against or drop people towards whom they feel beholden or guilty. somehow we see them as a source of our guilty discomfort, so there can be a subconscious drive to fight or flee them
  • a mistaken idea of absolution. by receiving the “punishment” of feeling guilty, it seems as if we’ve already done our part.

where does that all leave us? it seems to me that “feeling guilty” is really not such a useful activity because even in the positive scenario we can re-script it. next time you feel guilty, why don’t you imagine you can throw out most of it and just keep these:

  • your values of what’s right and what’s wrong
  • an awareness of how your actions and omissions impact others
  • compassion for anyone you might have impacted negatively
  • ask for forgiveness where possible (including from yourself!)
  • make restoration
  • do what you can to prevent a similar occurrence from repeating

isn’t that much cleaner and simpler?

(please continue on to part 2 of this reflection on guilt, inspired by the comment below)

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