“One of the hardest lessons in life is letting go. Whether it’s guilt, anger, love, loss, or betrayal. Change is never easy. We fight to hold on and we fight to let go.
Guilt – is something that we all feel and deal with in our everyday life. The feeling that we experience – after not being able to help an old lady cross the road because you were already late for work. Or being cranky and impatient towards your child, when you are stressed and tired.
In my practice, I have seen that guilt and its associated causes, merits, and demerits are common themes in most of my patients (clients). I have also seen that any emotion like fear, anger, grief, etc. when combined with guilt, needs deep healing. It might not be just because we have done something wrong. Sometimes it is because you haven’t done the right thing according to your code of ethics.
So let us first understand the definition of guilt –
‘A feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc. especially against moral or penal law; whether real or imagined.’
Guilt is an affective state in which one experiences conflict at having done something that one believes one should not have done (or conversely, having not done something one believes one should have done) driven by ‘conscience’.
Philosophy of Guilt
Guilt is distinct from, but similar to, shame. While guilt makes you feel, “I made a mistake”, shame makes you feel, “I am a mistake”. In most cases, they go hand in hand. So, henceforth in this article, I will use the word ‘guilt’, for both; guilt and shame.
From the beginning of human history, each generation has taken on guilt and passed it down to their children. We have used it for behavior modification, punishment, and revenge. Even institutions like businesses, governments, schools, and religions have used guilt to keep people in line.
Different societies and cultures have different morals or differing rules of right and wrong. A person in one culture may also feel guilty about behavior that a person in another culture would not even notice. For example, some collective groups believe having more than one wife is good, and that men are entitled to help themselves to sexual opportunity. While in many other cultures, it is seen as a great sin and no punishment is too severe, for such a crime.
Within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, each individual is viewed as having personal responsibility for actions that lead to guilt. The concept of karma makes provision for all individuals to put right, what they have done wrong through the cycle of rebirth.
Guilt may not always be bad. It plays a major role in moral behavior and can encourage people to follow ethical codes and social norms. Especially, when it results from wrongdoing, it can lead one to experience greater empathy for others and take responsibility for and make amends for their actions.
Contrary to this belief, we don’t always need guilt to keep us from doing ‘wrong’ things. A good conscience does not depend on guilt, but rather on a self-assured sense of what is right and wrong.
Types Of Guilt
Proportionate guilt –
Guilt for an action, decision, or other wrongdoing for which you must take responsibility, and that other people may have been negatively affected by. This is the healthy guilt that can spur you to correct wrongdoings, creating social cohesion and a shared sense of responsibility.
Disproportionate guilt –
Disproportionate guilt can be subdivided into guilt that is disproportionate to an actual act and guilt that is related to a thought, feeling, or imagined act.
It usually comes from one of the following sources:
- Doing better than someone (survivor’s guilt).
- Feeling that you didn’t do enough to help someone.
- Something that you only think you did.
- Something you didn’t do but that you want to do.
- Take the example of feeling guilty for getting a promotion. If you spread nasty rumors about a co-worker in order to get it, this guilt is indeed warranted or proportionate to the action. But, if you simply got this promotion from having earned it and feel guilty anyway, then you are dealing with disproportionate guilt. This type of guilt serves no rational purpose.
Existential Guilt –
It is a free-floating internal sense which does not arise from persona; or misbehavior. Many systems o psychology recognize generalized, uncaused guilt, but usually, they call it “neurotic” or “pathological” guilt.
Psychology of reasons for Guilt
Freud saw guilt as arising from a conflict between the ego and the superego – parental imprinting.
Gilbert describes guilt as an ‘effect which warns us if we are close to harming someone or stimulates reparation if we have hurt someone.
Erikson was one of the first psychoanalytic writers to directly address shame. He identified shame as a key issue in the second of eight stages of human development. This stage begins in the child’s second year when it starts to ‘stand on its own two feet. Erikson described the essential aspect of this phase as the polarity of ‘autonomy versus shame and doubt’.
Alice Miller claims that “many people suffer all their lives from this oppressive feeling of guilt, the sense of not having lived up to their parents’ expectations, no argument can overcome these guilt feelings, for they have their beginnings in life’s earliest period, and from that, they derive their intensity.
Defenses to deal with Guilt
Defenses against feeling guilt can become an overriding aspect of one’s personality. The methods that can be used to avoid guilt are multiple. They include:
- Repression, usually used by the superego to avoid inappropriate impulsive reactions. But it remains in the sub conscience and may surface many years later, even with a small trigger.
- Projection – is another defensive tool, with wide applications. Putting the blame on the victim, for having attracted the other person’s hostility.
- Sharing a feeling of guilt, and thereby being less alone with it. While it is also possible to “borrow” a sense of guilt from someone who is seen as wrong, and thereby assuage one’s own.
- Self-harm may be used as an alternative to compensating the object of one’s transgression – perhaps in the form of not allowing oneself to enjoy opportunities open to one, or benefits due, as a result of uncompensated guilt feelings.
How Guilt affects us
Some of the effects of withheld guilt:
- Self-criticism and self-blame;
- Self-destructive behaviours (abusing your body with food, alcohol,drugs, cigarettes, self-mutilation, being accident-prone);
- Self-sabotaging behaviour (starting fights with loved ones, sabotaging jobs);
- The belief that you do not deserve good things;
- Intense rage (frequent physical fights, road rage);
- Acting out against society (breaking the rules, breaking the law);
- Continuing to repeat the cycle of abuse through either victim behaviour or abusive behaviour;
- Ongoing negative thoughts and emotions create changes within our subtle energy system, which can affect our physical health and lead to dis-ease;
- Guilt is often created early on in childhood, when children are made to feel bad about their various behaviours. This can lead to emotional blocks later in life;
- Guilt and shame can lead to development of chronic psychological issues like depression, anxiety, obsessive and compulsive behaviours, etc.
Recognizing and understanding your own guilt
First of all, it is important to identify what you feel guilty about and why. Identifying the source of your guilt and why it makes you feel guilty can help you to determine if you are experiencing healthy (Proportionate Guilt) or unhealthy guilt (Disproportionate Guilt)
In case of disproportionate guilt, you might want to introspect or take help to identify the source.
Acceptance and taking the responsibility
Accept you did something wrong, but move on. We know that it’s impossible to change the past. So, after spending time learning from your actions and making amends and repairs wherever possible, it is important not to dwell for too long. Remind yourself that the sooner you are done feeling guilty, the sooner you can bring increased focus to other, more current parts of your life.
Leaning your lessons and moving on
Guilt’s purpose isn’t to make us feel bad just for the sake of it. The feeling of guilt is trying to get our attention so that we can learn something from the experience. If we learn from our behavior, we’ll be less likely to do it again in the future. If I’ve accidentally said something insulting to another person, my guilt is telling me I should (a) apologize to the person and (b) think a little more before I open my mouth.
If your guilt isn’t trying to correct an actual mistake you made in your behavior (e.g., it’s unhealthy guilt), then there’s not a whole lot you need to learn. Instead of learning how to change that behavior, a person can instead try to understand why a simple behavior most people wouldn’t feel guilty about is making one feel guilty. For instance, I felt guilty for spending some time playing a game during regular work hours. Since I work for myself, however, I don’t really keep “regular work hours,” but it’s hard for me to change that mindset after years of working for others.
Your admittance of what you did to harm others is doubly powerful if it is accompanied by a heartfelt, sincere apology. An apology can remove the cloak of shame that even the most remorseful person carries around.
You’re responsible for your actions but they don’t make you a bad person.
Feeling compassion for yourself does not release you from taking responsibility for your actions. But it can release you from the self-hatred that prevents you from forgiving yourself and free you to respond to the situation with clarity.
Incorporate spiritual practice –
Any type of meditative practice can help you learn to observe your own mental processes, including the tendencies that keep guilt going, like self-blame and excessive self-criticism. Once you learn to observe these processes, you can start being more compassionate toward yourself, recognizing that these thoughts need not be taken seriously or acted upon.
However, you are responsible for self-acceptance and self-compassion, and this can be done with or without help.
Take professional help
When you experience disproportionate guilt, it may be too difficult to resolve the issues alone, or even with the help of loved ones. See a qualified mental health practitioner or therapist/counselor
When guilt is associated with any underlying medical or psychiatric conditions like – depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Suicidal thoughts, etc. you might need medications along with the therapies.
- Homeopathy – is one of the treatment modality for such type of cases.It is already known that it is one of the safest mode of treatment
The remedy selection is based on symptom similarity. Each person who is suffering from any type of guilt is unique, at the physical and emotional level, in his own way. The remedy selection is based on those individualizing characteristics.
Psychosocial treatment –
- Hypnotherapy and many other psychotherapy can help you resolve unwanted emotions, and therapy may be especially helpful in dealing with guilt because treatment often enables people to live with negative emotions and challenge self-defeating thoughts.
- A qualified mental health therapist or counsellor who is clinically certified so that they can help you work through your feelings and re-frame your thoughts about an incident.
- A therapist may also work with a family member to help resolve issues of guilt and anger that can at times affect the entire family.