Friday, December 3, 2010

guilt





Do you ever find yourself overcome by a sense of regret?  Humans can feel regret over commissions and omissions.  But I have noticed that people use the term 'regret' to attenuate or dilute the intensity of feelings of guilt.  Guilt is hard to bear.  Feelings of guilt often lead to self-contempt.  When we experience feelings of guilt we make assumptions about ourself and try to link the feeling to circumstances where we offended loved ones, broke moral codes or societal conventions.


However, we often do not consider that guilt has several sources and can arise, for example, from not meeting our potential - from the life in us still unlived or unrealized.  This is called existential guilt - guilt that arises from the very act of being.  Because of our limited lifespan, we can never fully actualize our potential.  Living consciously demands that we understand this and question the validity and origins of feelings of guilt.  Existential guilt should be used to propel us forward in life, not to weigh us down. 


If you feel guilty because you really have committed an actual 'offense', make amends where possible and then let it go.  A feeling of guilt is sent by the organism as a prompt to action.  We need to take responsibility for our actions - make amends - apologize - and if we cannot right the wrong, our work is to forgive ourselves for our offense. 

 There is a difference between real guilt, neurotic guilt and existential guilt.  Real guilt elicits appropriate pangs of conscience.  Neurotic guilt is often a diversion from other deeper, more threatening feelings.  Existential guilt most often arises from what we have left undone in our life.  And again, all feelings of guilt arise as  prompts to action.  Act to correct the state of affairs and let go of the guilt. 


Wallowing in guilt can be dangerous.  On an unconscious level guilt always demands punishment.  If you nurse a feeling of guilt you will, sooner or later, find a way to punish yourself for your 'guilt'.  Invariably the punishment we mete out upon ourselves exceeds the 'crime'.  Pay attention to feelings of guilt.  Assess whether it is real guilt, neurotic guilt or existential guilt - and where you can make amends, correct the wrong, apologize, seek forgiveness, change your path - do so.  Then let it go.  If you don't let go of guilt your internal judge and tribunal will pronounce a verdict and hand down a sentence.   Accidents, illness, failures, losses can be a form of punishment (sentence) orchestrated by an internal, unconscious tribunal.  This can be avoided if one takes time to assess and address lingering feelings of guilt.


Often adults who were abused as children take on the guilt of their parents as if it were their own.  It is as if the parent is a sort of god to the child, and the child would rather take on the guilt than think of their parent/god as weak, evil, broken or unworthy.  Ask yourself if the guilt you carry is really your own.  Children are NOT guilty for what was done to them

(If the abuse was of a sexual nature, one can feel guilt because they experienced pleasurable feelings from the experience.  One must remember that the human body is wired to experience pleasure from sexual stimulation.  Physical pleasure may be experienced even in the worst of circumstances simply because nerve-endings are wired to experience pleasure when touched.  It does NOT mean that the child was complicit in, or a guilty party in the event.  It is the abuser who must bear the guilt.  If you have not already done so, you need to educate your inner child about these facts and relieve the inner child and your adult self of any lingering, inappropriate, unjustified guilt.)


 If the guilt about not realizing your potential (existential guilt) has merit, take the guilt as a message (prompt) from yourself to yourself and do what you can NOW to create a meaningful, satisfying life.  Sometimes this can be as simple as reassessing unrealistic expectations for one's life.  Then go of the guilt.  Guilt implies 'badness', and it does no one any good to walk around feeling they are guilty, bad, inferior.  Healthy guilt is a signal to correct a wrong or to attend to unmet needs or unmet potential.  Do the work guilt prompts, then let go of the guilt. 

33 comments:

  1. guilt can work both ways...some is healthy...others debilitating...you have to be wise in discerning which it is...

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  2. Hi Bonnie. I found this to be timely for me. What I couldn't or wouldn't do for my mother I am trying to do for my BIL.

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  3. For me, it's what they call "survivor's guilt," which I guess is a form of existential guilt.

    Many years ago, she saved my life. Now she's gone, and I'm still here, and I still struggle with that sometimes - even though I know it's not my fault.

    I try to counter those feelings by living the life she gave me the chance to have...but the guilt still creeps up on me sometimes.

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  4. Ellen: And while you do what you can for your BIL, you can consider working on forgiving yourself for what you couldn't or wouldn't do for your mother.

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  5. Jeff: Survivor's guilt is a common and interesting thing. Often people adopt it because it gives them a sense of control after a seemingly random, out-of-control, senseless event where one experiences the terrible reality of how little control they actually have. Guilt implies something could have been done differently - that you had the control to do something in the scenario, you didn't and so you feel guilt. It seems it is easier for we humans to feel guilt than how little control we have to prolong our life or the life of others.
    In other words it seems it is easier for we humans to think we failed at something than to come to terms with how little control we have. So we choose to feel guilt over the anxiety we would feel if we truly recognized how powerless we are over life's inevitable losses.

    Not sure if I have articulated that clearly or not - but I tried! You clearly know at some level you are not guilty, and you have used the lessons from the experience and taken control of what you can to carve out a better and more conscious life. :-)

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  6. Very timely post. I'm reminded of that indelible scene from Good Will Hunting, of therapist Robin Williams, telling Will, (Matt Damon) "it wasn't your fault."

    Off the top of my head I was wondering what role ego plays in neurotic guilt, versus real guilt? Hmm.. as usual, very good food for thought and timely in regards to how much there is to do for the holidays and the feelings of guilt that can arise at this time.

    Thank you as always, you continue to be a blessing to me :)

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  7. Vicky: Interesting thoughts. Good question, too, about neurotic guilt. If one finds they are always feeling guilty about something or other, it is a good bet that it is neurotic guilt. But remember, we are all neurotic to a degree, or at times! Ego is there to help us function and feel okay about ourself as we do. Often ego, if given the choice, will force us to feel the least threatening (to self-image) feeling. So if we are feeling anger or rage at all that is required of us over the xmas season, ego may convert that to feeling guilty that we can't do everything required. Guilt it seems is easier to feel that rage, anxiety, etc.
    Hope that sparks some of your own insights - and that perhaps you will share them here! xox

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  8. The last sentence in comment to Vicky (in 1st paragraph) should read: "Guilt it seems is easier to feel THAN rage, anxiety, etc.

    Typing too fast again. :-)

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  9. Perhaps this is a shortcoming, but i seldom feel the emotion of guilt. At some deep level, I know that I have always done the best I could in a given situation, even when others were disappointed in my choice (divorce, for example). In may opinion, guilt should only follow actions in which we fall short of our own values.

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  10. George: Yes, guilt serves a purpose and should not be a lingering debilitating emotion. You are a good example for us all.

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  11. Sometimes I feel guilt that I did "too much" for my kids when I see my son struggle through some every day life issues. But then again, my daughter does okay, so who knows?

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  12. It is not so much guilt I feel when I remember something that was said to me but an inability to accept that the person was unkind enough to say it.

    There, did you notice what I said there? The person was unkind! Not me, it wasn't me, I didn't deserve it! The person was cruel.

    Therapy is helping.

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  13. Pat: It seems easy to find things to regret or feel guilty about with regard to our children. If you can do something about it, do it. If not let it go. Guilt helps neither your son nor you.

    I spoke to my children about errors I thought I made, apologized and said it was now up to them as adults to come to terms with what they did or did not get from me. They seemed to appreciate the conversation.

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  14. Friko: So, if I understand you correctly, THEY are the guilty ones? Could be. Here a good therapist would ask - "...and in the scenario you just described what role, if any, might you have played?"

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  15. In my initial comments, Bonnie, I failed to mention that I love the header photo. The starkness of the black and white, the silhouetted figure walking down the road, the ethereal quality created by the lens flare — it all works together in a way that causes the viewer to say, "Yes, there I am, alone, on that road, walking forward, bathed in that mysterious sunlight of hope."

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  16. Guilt is a waste of time and a bummer. Therapy is a wonderful experience, but also a waste of time (and money). Celebrate the person that you are. You did the best you could at the time and under the circumstances. Lighten up. Life's too short.

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  17. George: Thanks - glad you like it. Did you notice his footprints on the path?

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  18. L.W. Guilt can be a waste of time and a bummer. Therapy too at times, as you say, but some people are not able to simply lighten up on command and need a little help. Life is too short to not celebrate all that you are, and sometimes people need a little help and support to be able to celebrate what is. It is too bad money has to enter into the dynamic - but that's the way it is for now.

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  19. I used to suffer from "white" guilt- "privileged" guilt but, you know, it's the luck of the draw and any time I can truly help another I do so. Guilt is a silly thing to hold on to.Trying to "guilt" somebody is a sick manipulation.

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  20. Linda Sue: What an important point - re not using guilt trips to manipulate others. I used to tell my children when they began dating that they should be careful of people who try to guilt them, or who require they (my children) justify themselves and their actions all the time.

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  21. good post with lots of insightful thinking bonnie. thanks for sharing this. steven

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  22. There's a lot to take away from this.. and to think about.. and hopefully, to put into practice. Thank you, Bonnie.

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  23. Very sound advice.

    I have actually had to struggle with various forms and feelings of 'guilt' all my life - which I put down partly to an overbearing Christian upbringing, a claustrophobic childhood, a disapproving and bullying father, and the dinning into me of the concept of 'original sin'. Luckily, education, reading, other people, an energetic love of life, and many subsequent life experiences have helped enormously to ameliorate this crippling and negative mental weight. However, still I continually have to come to terms with it, so ingrained is it in my psyche.

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  24. Robert: A Christian upbringing and the concept of original sin contribute greatly to a pervasive sense of guilt in the West. Such a crafty means of control set up by religions. If we are guilty, in need of some outer force for redemption, and the church is the only place where we can be redeemed ... we waddle willingly like good (guilty) little sheep, following wherever they may lead. If we break free from the flock, it seems we can still be saddled for years with guilt.

    Unjustified guilt gnaws away at our core sense of self and our well-being. It is quite enough to experience guilt for our real offenses we commit - but this ubiquitous guilt conferred upon us in this concept of original sin - stunts our freedom, contentment and growth.

    I hope you can do some conscious work on freeing yourself from any remaining shackles of unjustified guilt. It was imposed on you and never yours .... never mine either.

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  25. A wise and beautiful post, Bonnie . . .

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  26. Bonnie, I much appreciate your response to Robert's comments on the subject of guilt. The doctrine of original sin — which, as you say, was devised as a means of ecclesiastical control — is one of the most harmful ideas ever created by man. The idea that we enter the world condemned is totally insane and totally at odds with the concept of a loving god. If mankind has fallen from grace, it is not because of the mythical disobedience of Adam; it is because mankind has arrogantly pursued an egotistical agenda of dominating every aspect of nature, rather than choosing to live in harmony with it.

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  27. Kathryn: Happy to hear you found it of value.

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  28. Hey George: Beautifully expressed. There are other 'nefarious' implications of the doctrine of original sin which I plan to speak to in an upcoming post. I look forward to your comments on that topic as well.

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  29. Thanks, Bonnie and George, for your follow-up responses to my comment. Indeed, Bonnie - there are enough 'real' things to feel guilty about, without some extra, unsubstantiated, metaphysical guilt!

    I suppose any feelings of guilt now have more to do with actions in my life which have hurt others and things I should have done to help others. But it's no good beating oneself up about this. We all hurt others and we all could have done more to help others. That's part of what it is to be human, weak and fallible. We need to have the grace to forgive ourselves, and the courage and desire always to do better, even if we know at the same time we often might fail.

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  30. Robert (The Solitary Walker): What a beautiful summary for this topic. We can all benefit by taking your thoughts to heart.

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