Very often I hear people complain of feeling guilty, when it is fairly clear to me they have nothing to feel guilty about. As Guilt has become a generic term with a variety of meanings I thought I might attempt to cast some light on exactly what guilt is.
Real guilt is experienced by most people as the result of acts of commission or omission that have resulted in physical or emotional danger or harm to others. A true sense of guilt is the penalty we pay for having harmed another. The very word guilt derives from the Old English word gylt, which was the payment the offender had to render. As such, guilt serves an important function, a moral compass that helps keep us on course so that we live in a way that is not harmful to others. To alleviate guilt, we need to atone, to make restitution, to repair the damage we have done. If the harm occurred a long time ago, or if the injured party is inaccessible, we can still make reparation in the form of being of service or giving to others who are available. Victor Hugo’s character Jean Valjean took this path in the book Les Miserables.
From a strictly technical point of view, that brief synopsis covers Real Guilt. But along with Real Guilt, we need to examine the concept of False or Imagined Guilt, in which we find an absence of having acted harmfully.
False Guilt is often characterized by an element of wishful thinking I should have foreseen this, If only I had acted more quickly, If only I’d been there when the call came, etc. That these thoughts are essentially irrational in no way minimizes the sense of torment and suffering they create. That they are a form of self-punishment would not come as news to anyone who has experienced them. Aside from the wishful thinking, other characteristics of False Guilt are that it tends not to diminish over time (as grief would), is consistent with thinking one must always please others and be somehow responsible for their happiness and is consistent with a tendency towards self-blame.
The biggest problem that I see in dealing with False Guilt is that the individual has quietly left the anchor of logic and rationality behind. No amount of logical suggestions from others can shake them from their beliefs; very often the individuals themselves see the irrationality and illogic of their beliefs yet feel powerless to alter them. Why would this be? Well, there are a number of possible explanations. Sometimes holding onto the False Guilt acts as a bond to a person or a past period of time. Clutching tightly to these beliefs may be a way of avoiding having to face the reality that what happened has happened and nothing is going to bring it back or change it in any way. The constant self-punishing aspect may represent an offering placed upon the altar of misguided loyalty or longing.
There is certainly a sameness in the act of self-punishment that may be in its own way comforting, like a favorite chair or piece of music. There is an element of secondary gain involved as well, whereby the individual may garner pity, sympathy or consolation from those around them. To a certain extent, people enmeshed in False Guilt may be excused from taking on new or maintaining current responsibilities. False Guilt may provide a false sense of control over the unpredictability of life and may even be used as a way of punishing others indirectly.
Ok, so how do we deal with this problem? Trite as it may sound, the first step is for the person involved to claim they want to. I want to free myself from this debilitating trap and live a full life, and I’m willing to face whatever I need to in order to do it. This is a good general statement of intent that allows for the fact that while we may not be clear about what we may have to face, we’re stating a willingness to face it. We can trust that God or the Universe won’t give us more than we can handle. An affirmation like this can be written out and placed in a prominent place, like the bathroom mirror, where we’ll see it every morning. In lieu of writing an affirmation out, we can post a picture or drawing that symbolizes this intent.
The next step is to make restitution in whatever form and in whatever forum we chose. The world can always use more people giving service or doing good deeds and it is always much easier to do something (service) that to not do something (self-punish.) Entered into with the right spirit, this will enhance your sense of self-worth and self-esteem and make a real and tangible difference in your life.
Thirdly, you have to be willing to forgive, and to forgive the hardest person in the world there is for you to forgive…yourself. Whatever it is you imagined you did or didn’t do, you have to relinquish the suffering, close the book on the chapter, and say I’ve given this episode all the energy to that I am going to. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to make this sacrifice and give yourself over to living the best life you can live, for you and those around you. There is nothing selfish in this, though for those suffering from False Guilt this is almost always the conclusion they will draw. Selfishness is when you do something for yourself at another’s expense; there is nothing selfish about what I am suggesting here.
Make the commitment and work every day towards accomplishing your goals and you’ll be surprised by what you are capable of achieving.
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