Who hasn’t done something that they believe they should not have done? Kicked the cat? Stolen stationary from the office? Disclosed what a friend confided? Or whatever? Nobody is perfect, we all make mistakes, and do something wrong. And so from time to time you are likely to experience a feeling of guilt.
It may not have been such a terrible thing you did. But what if you feel bad and it keeps playing on your conscience? Why won’t the feeling of guilt go away?
As a child Catherine got ticked off a lot by strict parents. And as an adult she tended to dwell on the judgments about her of others. Sadly, she became one of those people who are quick to feel guilt over the smallest thing they do wrong if it goes against the expectations of other people. A sensitive conscience can easily become overburdened at times. What I call phoney guilt seems to come about from the assumption that what you feel must be true: so if you feel guilty, then you must be guilty!
“True guilt is guilt at the obligation one owes to oneself to be oneself. False guilt is guilt felt at not being what other people feel one ought to be.” (R. D. Laing)
I would distinguish Catherine’s false guilt with a true guilt arising from a healthy conscience of someone whose guilt feelings arise from an awareness of having acted against their own principles. Much beneficial counselling has been conducted with the Catherine’s of this world, helping such clients to stop taking to heart unfair criticism. But what use is that approach with those of us who are facing reasonable censure and who can easily distinguish successfully between appropriate and inappropriate guilt? What if you have actually done something wrong and can’t forget it because you know in your heart you have gone against your own rules?
I would like to suggest a few reasons why you might not be able to rid yourself of realistic guilt.
Making a glib acknowledgment of guilt
You may come to realise that there are some people you do not respect and some close relationships you have not cherished. Perhaps you were rude or neglectful on one or two occasions. Apologising for mistakes like this can easily trip off the tongue.
You may have felt badly at the time, but if you haven’t accepted in your heart the need to change, it is only too easy to forget you had previously glibly acknowledged the error. But then something or someone later will likely remind you of your fault.
Using escapism from guilt
If you have done something seriously wrong, and do not deal with this then to escape from emotional pain you may have fallen into some kind of addiction, escapism or other risk taking behaviour. Unfortunately, such action can cause you more guilty feelings if as a result you do harm to others for example hurting your loved ones by excessive alcohol consumption or obliging them to rescue you from difficult circumstances you have created for yourself.
Using excuses for guilt
It is comfortable to rely on such excuses as `I didn’t mean it’, `It was an accident’, `I couldn’t help it’, and `I followed an irresistible impulse’.
For one kind of person a tempting way to respond to guilt is to blame the victim. “She caused my sexual aggression by making herself too attractive.” “Of course I’m going to nick his things if he can’t be bothered to lock them up properly.” Naturally, this doesn’t work either, as sooner or latter, the wrong-doer will be reminded of the misdeed when common sense prevails.
Confessing guilt to an unsympathetic person
Many alcoholics can only confess the mess they are in to fellow problem drinkers: such people will be in the same boat and can be expected to be sympathetic. People with emotional problems find it easier to confess weaknesses and failings to a counsellor they feel is showing unconditional warmth.
On the contrary, try talking about things you feel guilty about to someone who is unsympathetic and you won’t get very far. And even if you do persevere you are likely to take on board their judgmental attitude towards yourself.
Sometimes people yearn for God’s forgiveness but cannot experience this because they believe in a judgmental God. You might risk confessional prayer. But unless your idea of God is one of compassion, you are not going to feel any sense of forgiveness. In fact, if you pray to a harsh idea of God you may even end up beating yourself up even more as a “sinner who deserves punishment.”
“Hard though it may be to accept, remember that guilt is sometimes a friendly internal voice reminding you that you’re messing up.” (Marge Kennedy)
The way I see it is the emotional discomfort of guilt is like the physical pain of a flame. The pain will soon go away after you remove your hand from the flame. Guilt likewise serves to teach us where we are going wrong. I don’t think guilt is meant to last. Once it has served its friendly purpose who needs it any more?
Surely, some religious people are mistaken. Those who believe that you just need to ask for forgiveness and you are forgiven. No, you need something more. What about a genuine remorse for your misdeed? A desire not to repeat it? And an interest in making amends? Are all these not also vital? Without them all in place, how can one feel your guilt set aside?
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems