Rhonda was a “wild child” in high school. She ran with the popular crowd and wasn’t too nice to those who didn’t. Part of being popular meant a good bit of sexual activity – quite a lot more than she’d been ready for. Now, as an adult, she looked back on those days with feelings of guilt and remorse.
Vince was the proverbial do-gooder. Everything he did seemed to be in an effort to help someone else. Everyone admired him, especially when he recently chose to move closer home to support his parents as they entered their twilight years. But, inside he was falling apart. While people tended to see him on the outside as altruistic, inside he was motivated by one thing only – how much guilt he’d feel if he didn’t help out. This made things really difficult when people didn’t want his help, or weren’t ready for it. He ended up resentful and angry until he found someone else to help, and the cycle would start over again.
Alistair was a well respected physician and professor of medicine. On all counts he was loved and admired. But he couldn’t figure out why it didn’t seem to be enough. Alistair’s father was a physician and professor as well, until he committed suicide when Alistair was 14. Alistair had been the last person to see him alive and had always felt if only he could’ve done something more, maybe he could’ve prevented his father’s death.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is a feeling that arises from a belief that one has done or not done something that resulted in unfortunate consequences. The hallmark is perceived responsibility for the unfortunate consequences, leading to remorse and regret. This is all the more true if the circumstances surrounding the persons’ responsibility involved taking part in something immoral, illegal, unethical, or otherwise generally questionable.
Why should I deal with my guilt?
Because feelings of guilt are painful and uncomfortable with which to deal, many persons prefer to leave them alone. But, when left unresolved, guilt can drive any number of maladaptive responses and strategies in life. And those responses may impact more than just the guilty person. For example:
- A father who was promiscuous in high school may be excessively cautious and vigilant toward his high school daughter, who is very well adjusted.
- Adults who were unable to care for their own ailing parents may be excessively demanding on their own children to care for themselves.
- Persons who witnessed a parent’s infidelity but said nothing may be more likely to be in relationships with cheating partners.
Is it ever okay to feel guilty?
Generally speaking, there is large difference between feeling guilty and being guilty, though certainly persons who feel guilty may not be, and those who are guilty may not feel that way when they ought. We end up confused about when to feel guilty and when not to feel guilty because life is complicated. Often times, adults internalize irrational or illogical thought processes they had as children when their views of the world were self-centered. For example, a child who didn’t clean up his room may believe himself responsible for his parents divorce, and hold onto feelings of guilt well into adulthood. This is, of course, “magical thinking” – i.e., the belief that some action we took as a child was much more powerful than it was.
On the other hand, sometimes guilt is earned. When we act in a way that violates our value system, or in a way that violates social mores or actual law, we may in fact be guilty of some offense. The accompanying feeling of guilt is appropriate in that sense and indicative that something is wrong. However, this is not to say that feeling guilty is always productive. That is, if feelings of guilt result in a cycle of unhealthy self-talk and self-degradation, they aren’t helping. But if our feelings of guilt prompt us to seek resolution (i.e., restitution, requests for forgiveness, etc.), then they may actually be a part of the healing process.
As described above, when we’re feeling guilty but haven’t actually done anything wrong, often times we say, “Oh, I know I’m not really responsible for that,” but live and act otherwise. This is especially true if others we loved or respected told us we were responsible for things we were not, and we may have a hard time shaking false guilt. In fact, we may become somewhat morbidly or obsessively guilty with rehashing the events surrounding our feelings of guilt, or with hiding them altogether.
How Do You Respond?
The best way to understand the power of guilt in your life is to analyze your response to it. Here are a few comparisons worth making as you determine exactly what your response is:
- Responsibility vs. Guilt. Did you actually commit some moral or legal offense, or are you just thinking you’re more powerful than you are?
- Resolved vs. Unresolved. If you actually committed an offense, have you made restitution and sought forgiveness from the offended parties? If you are religious or spiritual, have you sought forgiveness from the God of your understanding? Or, are you going over the details of the offense over and over in your mind, and/or constantly asking for others to listen to you and tell you whether or not you’re guilty?
- Just You vs. Others. Do your feelings of guilt impact the way you currently act toward others, positively or negatively? Or, has the situation reached the point where your responses are self-contained?
- Molehills vs. Mountains. Does the original event seem monumental and still impact your feelings or actions currently, or is it something that, when you do think about, you experience as proportional to the rest of your life? In other words, do you feel your life is now unalterably ruined as a result?
- Fixable vs. Unfixable. Do you view the original event as something that can forever be unfixed, or something with which you can eventually make peace?
Some Action Steps to Take on Your Own.
- Stop Dismissing. Feelings of guilt can be a vital indicator that something needs addressing in your life, so it’s better to pay attention to them in a concentrated way, rather than denying them.
- Get a Second Opinion. Unless you’ve been obsessively asking others for their opinions, ask a trusted mentor or friend about the original event and your current feelings, and see what their perspective is.
- Be willing to go through a process. Even after talking with friends who may tell us we have no reason to feel guilty, we may still need to go through a process to actualize that in our lives. Be willing to weather it.
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