Guilt And Its Consequences
What is guilt?
Webster defines it as “the fact or state of having committed an offense, or wrong against moral or penal law.”
Guilt is a consequence of us sometimes having done something that on the surface seems wrong. It is also a consequence of others wanting us to feel responsible for a situation – rightfully or not.
Let’s think about the first type of guilt; the one which comes as a consequence of us actually having not acted properly.
Here’s an example: a friend of mine got a visit from an out of state and close friend of hers.
The friend had called her ahead and asked if he could come and stay with her. After my friend said yes, her friend shared he would be staying for five weeks. As they were close friends, my friend didn’t feel the right to say anything. But what ended up happening is that the minute the out of state friend arrived, my friend – who was stuck in the five week stay – started treating her friend with coldness and anger and in between the roller-coaster swings she felt guilt.
Now, of course my friend was acting improperly. She did agree to let her friend visit even when she knew he would be staying for five weeks. But the guilt did not do anything to help the situation. Quite the contrary: the guilt only made it worse.
When my friend shared her dilemma with me, I suggested she break up the pattern of anger/guilt by first doing something calming; a bath or meditation. This is an important step. If we don’t put the break on our state of mind, there is no room for change.
Then I reminded her guilt was a useless feeling. In and of itself it did nothing to improve her problem. The truth is, it didn’t matter that she had acted improperly. What matter is what she was going to do from that point on. I reminded her the past had already happened – so no room for guilt – but the present and future were still being written. What was she going to do about it? How was she going to act differently? Then I helped her understand why having someone in her space for so long was so overwhelming. My friend had recently lost her mother who she had cared for many years. My friend had given up on many things to be available to her mother. So having someone stay with her for that period of time and again take her away from her life was overwhelming.
Being armed with the reasoning for her behavior my friend was able to forgive herself and improve a situation that had seemed destined to disaster.
The second type of guilt is as of consequence of others wanting us to take responsibility for a situation. It is the famous “guilt trip”. This type of guilt also has no place in our psyche as it is a form of manipulation. Someone is using guilt as a tool to keep us hostage. When these situations occur we just need to ask ourselves if we have acted according to our sense of fairness. If the answer is yes then however others see the situation or us shouldn’t matter.