If you’re feeling guilty, that’s a shame. Why? Because guilt, shame, and other negative emotions have the potential to rob us of happiness and limit our growth. For convenience I may refer to emotions as “positive” or “negative.” However, emotions are neither. They are simply signals to inform us how we feel. It is our reaction to those signals that are positive or negative.
Let’s look at an example that includes fear, anger, guilt, and sadness: Tom had a grueling day at the office. When he gets home, he nearly slips on the kitchen floor that his wife, Betty, had mopped moments earlier. Tom is angry and calls his wife, who comes rushing in from another room. “You idiot!,” he screams, “I could have fallen on the wet floor, banged my head, and gone unconscious!”
Betty bursts into tears and explains, “Jimmy (their five-year-old son) spilt milk on the floor, and I mopped it up.” Tom now feels guilty and says, “I’m sorry honey. Although it’s no excuse, perhaps the combination of my stressful day and the near fall upset me. I know it was terribly unfair of me to get angry at you and call you names. Will you forgive me?” Betty answers with a kiss and embrace.
When Tom started to slip on the kitchen floor, he was gripped by fear. This emotion was simply signaling him that he was in a dangerous situation. Thanks to that signal, he quickly braced his body against the sink and corrected his balance, preventing a fall. Even though he avoided the fall, the thought that he might have been injured by Betty’s “carelessness” upset him. The anger he felt wasn’t negative; it was merely a signal that an explanation was necessary. But his reaction to that signal was definitely negative. He accused his wife of wrongdoing without getting the facts.
When Betty started to cry, he realized he was causing her pain, making him feel sad and guilty. The sadness he felt was a reminder that he was hurting someone he loved. And the guilt he felt was a signal that he owed his wife an apology. Thankfully, Tom responded very well to those signals, and his apology brought him and Betty closer. Ideally, Tom will learn from this experience and whenever he gets upset in the future, will stop and think before acting.
The rest of this article will deal mainly with how we can harm ourselves with guilt and how to overcome it. But before starting, a word about shame. What is the relationship between guilt and shame? Simply put, we feel guilty for what we do and feel shame for what we are. To avoid having a low opinion of ourselves, it is important to resolve our guilt. In my example of Tom, after resolving his guilt by apologizing to Betty, he felt good about himself. If, on the other hand, he were to regularly argue with Betty and fail to repair their relationship, he would be contributing to his own low self-esteem.
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. We are raised to believe the guilty should be punished, so when we have unresolved guilt, we may subconsciously punish ourselves by deliberately creating self-defeating setbacks and failures. For example, a ruthless corporate executive climbs to the top by destroying those beneath him. Even though he becomes successful, his subconscious 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.
Additional Harmful Effects of Guilt
1. A major problem with this emotion is that guilt in one area of life can easily compound the problem by creating guilt in another area and escalate into an ever worsening situation. For example, let’s say that Tom regularly succumbs to anger and fails to resolve his problem. As a result of constantly attacking others, he will be destroying his relationships at work and at home. He will find this very painful, and perhaps to numb the pain, he will turn to alcohol, creating another problem. Because of his drinking, he may waste a great deal of money on booze, which would cause more guilt, further pain, and a greater need for relief, which would lead to even more drinking. This can escalate until Tom becomes an alcoholic, gets fired, divorced, and ends up homeless.
2. People suffering from guilt feel uncomfortable among innocent people. To lessen the pain they feel, they may belittle others to make themselves look and feel better. However, such behavior destroys friendships and alienates them from others, adding to their pain.
3. Considerable energy is required to live the life of our dreams. Guilt saps our energy, making us more vulnerable to obstacles and easily defeated.
4. The pain of guilt grabs our attention, shifting our focus from what we can do to improve our lives to what we can do to reduce our pain. But, if we remain alert and resist the urge to run from pain in search of pleasure, we can resolve our guilt by making up for the harm we have done.
5. Just as thieves believe everyone is a thief, guilty people believe everyone is guilty. So, they are unjustly suspicious of others, and their suspicions ruin their relationships, resulting in a loss of power.
6. Those who hide their guilt, such as husbands who abuse their wives, cannot live in peace because they live with the fear of detection.
7. When we are responsible for the suffering of others, guilt is an appropriate feeling, and it is hoped that we would respond appropriately by making up for the harm we have caused. But, at times, people feel guilty about things that are not their fault at all. This is called neurotic guilt. An example would be someone who feels they must look after the needs of others before looking after their own needs. This doesn’t make sense because if we fail to look after our own needs, we will be in a weakened position and unable to fully attend to the needs of others. Take care of yourself first so you will be in a better position to help others, and don’t feel guilty about it.
8. Guilt is often used to manipulate and control others. Don’t poison your relations with manipulation and don’t allow others to manipulate you by making you feel guilty. To learn more about guilt and manipulation, see these articles: Article 1, Article 2.
9. Since you cannot do two things at once, the time spent consumed by guilt is time spent away from the excitement, pleasure, and joy of life.
10. Unresolved guilt can develop into anxiety and even depression. So, don’t allow it to linger. Rather than wait until you have a chronic problem, nip it in the bud by acting quickly.
1. If you’re accused of wrongdoing, don’t try to dismiss it by saying something like, “Everybody does that. Boys will be boys. It was just a little indiscretion. Everybody makes mistakes. I didn’t mean any harm.” Rather, assume responsibility for your wrongdoings and use it as a springboard for self-improvement.
2. Don’t weaken your character and lose the trust of others by denying responsibility for your misdeeds. Denying your responsibility is bad enough for it shows cowardice, but trying to escape culpability by blaming others is far worse, for it is nothing less than treachery. But if you do slip and make serious errors, all is not lost. We can always recover. Do your best to repair the damage that was done, learn from it, and move on.
3. Be quick to judge yourself and slow to judge others (or better yet, don’t judge others at all). Remember, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
By now it must be clear that if we allow unresolved guilt to fester, it will greatly reduce the quality of our lives. For this reason, let’s now explore what we can do to resolve it.
First Steps in Resolving Guilt
1. If you can make amends do so. The party you have injured may not forgive you, and you don’t have a right to demand their forgiveness. But at least do whatever you can to make up for the harm you have done. Once you have done your best to rectify the situation, forgive yourself, learn from your mistake, and commit to not repeating it.
2. Question your behavior and look at it closely. Are your feelings of guilt justified or are you experiencing neurotic guilt? Neurotic guilt can easily flourish in the shadows of our subconscious. But carefully examine it in the light of day, for often awareness and close scrutiny are all that is needed to overcome it. After all, once you prove to yourself that you are not responsible for what happened, you will be able to let go of guilt.
3. Defuse the negative feelings of guilt by asking yourself what the benefits are. What can you learn? How can you use the mistake you have made, not only to repair your relationship, but to make it stronger? What opportunities does your guilt offer you? Once you peel its bitter skin, you may find a sweet fruit. But before you can find it, you have to look for it. The best way to overcome guilt is to use it to improve ourselves.
The Complete Cure
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 with 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. So, let’s scrape off the rust, tarnish, and blemishes of guilt and let our natural goodness shine through!
by Susan Carrell
Shame & Guilt: Masters of Disguise by Jane Middelton-Moz
by Ernest Kurtz
Guilt is the Teacher, Love is the Lesson by Joan Borysenko
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: Freeing Yourself From Guilt, Blame and Shame
(1 hr, 28 min)
John Demartini: Feeling Guilt and Shame? Demartini It!
John Breeding: How to Deal with Guilt & Shame
Kamil K. Wawrzyszko: How to get rid of Guilt instantly
Lisa Selvaggio:Guilt Complex – Do You Suffer from It?
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.:5 Tips for Dealing with Guilt
Diana Lalor, Psychologist:Dealing with Feelings of Guilt
Learn more about guilt in the free, online encyclopedia of Psychological Self-Help