Guilt is one of the most distressing and paralyzing feelings we can have. Once it arises, it clings to consciousness like a patina that is difficult to remove. Like a thousand-headed hydra, it usually returns even when we consider it gone.
The worst thing is that we can come to feel guilty for practically anything, for what we have done or not done, for what we think or for what we feel, for the words we have said or for those we have been silent ...
In reality, it is not strange that guilt consumes us because we are children of a "culture of guilt" that has dragged original sin for centuries. Ergo, we all believe that we must atone for a fault, even if we do not know what it is.
Indeed, some ethnological studies have found that Samoans are more likely to indulge in temptation than Americans, but are also less likely to feel remorse or guilt after transgression.
The curious fact is that Western culture plants the seed of guilt at a very young age. Other research has found that American 2- and 3-year-olds have already developed a greater tendency to feel guilty after transgressing than Taiwanese children.
Feeling guilty is not the same as being guilty
Guilt takes many forms, almost as many as there are people and situations. Generally speaking, we can experience five main types of primal guilt:
1. "Healthy" sense of guilt
This is "textbook fault", what we feel when we do something wrong. It could be due to harm we have caused to another person, intentionally or unintentionally, or even a violation of our code of ethics. We may feel guilty, for example, for lying or insulting someone. We also tend to feel guilty when we go back to old harmful habits that we thought were permanently buried in the past, such as smoking or drinking.
This type of guilt is not bad in itself - or at least not that bad. If we have done something wrong, the sense of guilt warns us. It activates the feeling of responsibility for the damage caused and generates a feeling of remorse or regret, a psychological state that prompts us to try to repair what we have done wrong. In these cases the most important thing is not to blame ourselves too much and take a proactive attitude aimed at compensating for our mistake. We can apologize to the person or think about what we should do to avoid doing this again. Case closed. Point.
2. Guilt for negligence
It's the kind of guilt we feel when we don't do something we should have or wanted to do. It is the sense of guilt we feel when, for example, we know that duty is calling us, but we decide to do something else that is more pleasant or satisfying. It occurs when we postpone important decisions and things end badly. In fact, this type of guilt is usually generated by inaction, when we don't exercise self-control and succumb to our first impulses.
This type of guilt is difficult to manage because, strictly speaking, we have not done anything wrong, the problem is that we punish ourselves for what we have not done. We punish ourselves for laziness or indifference. Or perhaps because we have not been able to foresee the consequences of our negligence. To get rid of this kind of guilt, we need to recognize these unpleasant thoughts and accept them, even if they make us feel bad at first. In the long run, radical acceptance will prove liberating.
3. Imaginary fault
Guilt tends to drag us onto slippery ground, which often comes from irrational ideas. Therefore, if we are convinced that we have done something wrong, we will feel guilty as if we did it. Some people, for example, may blame themselves for distancing themselves from another, assuming they did something wrong when they didn't. People also blame themselves for the accidents suffered by their loved ones, even if in reality they could not anticipate the events and do something to prevent them.
In these cases, before we start accusing ourselves of making a mistake and sitting in the dock, we must subject our ideas to the "reality test". Above all, we must make sure that the event actually happened and does not exist only in our imagination or is the product of a distortion of our memories. If the fact we are blaming ourselves for really happened, the second step is to clarify our degree of responsibility. We are probably exaggerating our power to change the flow of events.
4. Fault for limitation
Sometimes we think we're Superman. We tend to believe that we can do more for others. Help and support them more. Give more. We also tend to believe that we can handle everything. That is why we take on more responsibility. More obligations. More tasks. At some point we realize we have limits. Then we can feel guilty. We feel guilty for not being up to it, not helping enough, not spending more time and resources ...
This type of guilt is usually related to empathy syndrome and burnout syndrome. In practice, it arises from a distorted perception and the belief that nothing we do is enough. This leads us to constantly sacrifice and push ourselves beyond our limits until we find ourselves emotionally exhausted. To deal with this type of guilt we must assume our limits as people and understand that every sacrifice has its limits. To take care of others or do our job well, we must first take care of ourselves.
5. Survivor's fault
This type of guilt is particularly harsh and difficult to remove. It is what people who have survived family and friends in an accident or disaster experience. However, it can also be experienced by those who are in better health than their friends or family, or by those who lead a better or more comfortable life. Survivors' guilt can also torture people who believe they have had undeserved opportunities in life versus those who have not been able to enjoy them.
In many cases, this type of guilt leads people to self-destructive behavior, so it is important to remember that no "punishment" we impose on ourselves can undo the past. Instead, we need to find strength and inspiration in those important people who may not have had the same opportunities as us, but who probably would like us to take advantage of them. Or think of those people who are no longer by our side, but who surely would like us to be happy and take advantage of life.
The fine line that separates healthy guilt from neurotic guilt
Guilt is not a pleasant feeling. There is no doubt about this. But it's not always bad. Guilt also has an adaptive component which is very useful for social relationships.
New York University psychologists manipulated the results of a racial bias test to make some people feel guilty for their responses and found that those participants were more likely to take positive steps to reduce their biases.
This indicates that guilt works in two ways: it can initially make us feel bad and discourage us from repeating the behavior that made us feel guilty, but it can also encourage positive behavior, aimed at reducing that guilt. Guilt can help us grow as people.
That kind of guilt is adaptive. Healthy guilt is what we feel when we hurt someone or regret a mistake made. It has an identifiable cause and generates genuine regret. Therefore, it encourages us to undo the damage and prevent it from happening again. We feel responsible and want to rebuild the relationship. In those cases, guilt also acts as a social glue that guarantees coexistence.
However, sometimes we cannot repair the damage or go back to avoid the mistake. When we can't fix it but continue to feel responsible, the guilt is exacerbated. In those cases we can refer to a neurotic sense of guilt that can become pathological.
Neurotic guilt also occurs when the feelings associated with it are not linked to a specific cause. We perceive guilt as a heavy burden, even if objectively we have no responsibility for what happened. Then life becomes a nightmare because we stop feeling guilty and start feeling guilty. Guilt completely permeates the image of ourselves and we begin to feel unworthy and inadequate.
Sure, it's hard to live completely guilt-free, but we can keep this feeling within healthy limits that we can handle. Guilt can help us understand ourselves better and change some of our wrong attitudes or beliefs. But if we allow it to grow, it can end up consuming everything.