Seventeenth-century British Bishop, Robert South, wrote: “Guilt upon the conscience, like rust upon iron, both defiles and consumes it, gnawing and creeping into it, as that does which at last eats out the very heart and substance of the metal.” More recently, American Psychotherapist Dr. Albert Ellis wrote, “The more sinful and guilty a person tends to feel, the less chance there is that he will be a happy, healthy, or law-abiding citizen.” The message, then, is guilt can harm us. What is the proper way to handle guilt and how does it harm us? For the answers to these and other questions, read on.
Let’s begin by defining “guilt” as it is used in this article. It’s not neurotic or unjustified guilt that I’m writing about, but the discomfort we experience when we go against our own conscience. Here are some examples: a student goes partying with friends when he should be studying for an important exam, a husband is not spending enough time with his wife because he’s watching too much sports on TV, an employee spends an hour a day doing personal business during office hours. In all of these cases, the subjects were doing something they knew they should not have been doing or not doing something they should have been doing, so they felt guilty.
It is not feeling guilty that is bad, but unresolved guilt that is harmful. That is, guilt is good. It is a red warning light, alerting us that we are straying from the path and need to correct our course. We are not responsible for what we are, but for what we can become. So, whenever we choose short-term pleasure over long-term gain, we feel guilty. We are bound to slip now and then. But if we listen to the voice of our conscience and change our behavior, our feeling of guilt will evaporate. The trouble occurs when we refuse to change, even though we know better.
What happens when our guilt is unresolved, when we refuse to listen to the voice of reason?
1. Well, if we continue to behave destructively, guilt will gnaw away at our peace of mind. After all, we realize that we’ll have to pay the price for our irresponsible behavior in the future. Guilt also saps our energy, which is badly needed for our personal development.
2. When we are plagued by guilt, we mistrust or fear others, for as Shakespeare wrote, “Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind; the thief doth fear each bush an officer.”
3. The guilty suffer three times: once when they act irresponsibly, again when they see others behave responsibly, and third when they have to pay the consequences.
4. When unresolved, guilt can lead to a poverty complex. That is, we may subconsciously thwart our own success because we feel undeserving. Let’s say a ruthless corporate executive climbs to the top by destroying those beneath him. Even though he becomes successful, his subconscious mind may direct him toward gambling, for example, to make him lose his “undeserved wealth.”
5. When we succeed despite our unresolved guilt, it may also lead to depression or fear of being exposed. Others may try to drown out the voice of their conscience with drugs, sex, or alcohol.
Thus, unresolved guilt can crush our enjoyment of life, cause fear and pain, and prevent us from reaching our potential.
What is the cure for the malady of irresponsibility? It is “Response-Ability.” That is, the ability to respond suitably. It is the ability to make the right choices. We can heal ourselves of irresponsibility by following the AAA steps (Admit, Analyze, Atonement). First we need to ADMIT or acknowledge that we made a poor choice. We have to confess to ourselves that what we did was wrong.
Next, we must ANALYZE our behavior. What is the reason for our poor choice? What action should we have taken in its place? What are the consequences of inappropriate behavior? How can we avoid making the same mistake? What action will we now take to stay on track?
When we choose to act properly, our action coincides with what is best for us. Another word for this is integrity. Integrity is what we have when we behave in accordance to our beliefs. The word is related to integration, and it refers to the integration of our heart, spirit, goals, and actions. When everything comes into alignment, when everything is at one, we reach the third step, at-one-ment (ATONEMENT).
When we follow these three steps, our past feeling of guilt will be replaced by responsibility, our past pain will be replaced by a wish to improve, and our past regrets will be replaced by a plan to do better. Let’s scrape off the rust and let our natural goodness shine through!