”Guilt, the sense of anguish that we have fallen short of our own standards, is the guardian of our goodness.”
In a 1983 article written by Jane E. Brody for the New York Times entitled, Guilt: Or Why it’s Good to Feel Bad she reviews the work of Dr. Willard Gaylin, a psychotherapist, who made the above assertion about guilt. “Guardian of our goodness” may seem a bit melodramatic, but I see where he’s coming from. Guilt, like anger, fear, frustration, worry, or joy, is a messenger. Another emotion firing off a signal, and in guilt’s case, signaling that something is counter to our goodness. The tricky part is to peel back the layers in order to uncover why the feeling is arising in the first place. This is where humans tend to fall short because self-reflection takes time and, sometimes, brutal honesty with ourselves. We like quick fixes. Add to that our desire to avoid pain or deflect it and we get a lot of people pointing fingers and refusing to own their feelings.
OWNING OUR FEELINGS, EVEN GUILT
A college professor of mine once shared, “No one can make you feel a certain way, it’s merely your reaction to something they have said or done.” This was a poignant statement and it got my attention. I had been known to hand the keys to my emotional well-being to others–strangers even and I have watched this happen time and time again with family and friends. It is understandable really because it is much easier to blame someone else for our feelings then to do the hard work of figuring out why we are feeling a certain way to begin with. I think it is also because we have been woefully misinformed about our emotions in general in that we simply try to avoid, deflect, hide from, or stuff the more challenging ones.
However, there is great freedom in owning our feelings because they help us understand what we like, what we do not like, what we need to change, and what we would like to stay the same. In her article, Why It’s Good to Feel Guilty, Dr. Maryanne Fisher explores guilt and concludes: “It is the feeling of guilt that causes us to examine the hardships that we cause for others, and to make us want to engage in behaviours that will fix the mess we’ve caused.”
HEALTHY GUILT VERSUS SHAME
Healthy guilt is a red flag waving and shouting, “Hey! Look at me! I need you to consider something.” If you have participated in a behavior or have made a decision to do something and there is guilt arising, think about why this could be. You can make amends or apologize if the guilt is because of something you did (or didn’t do) in regards to another person. If you are feeling guilty and beating yourself up about personal decisions you made, think about how you could do things differently next time or how you may be able to change course moving forward. If you come to the conclusion that the decision you made (or will make) was the logical choice given your circumstances and you still feel an overwhelming sense of guilt, you may be moving into shame territory.
“Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong shame is the feeling of being something wrong.” -Marilyn J. Sorensen
Feelings pop in to deliver messages. Your job is to read them, respond, then move on. Humans can not operate properly by holding onto negative feelings indefinitely so if the guilt won’t go away even after you have made amends or accepted what is, you may need to do a little more reflection (or seek assistance) in understanding why you are stuck.
All of our emotions have a purpose, they signal when something is properly aligned with our general belief system or when something is counter to it. In an individual who has a developed conscience and an internal set of standards, healthy guilt shows up when those standards are challenged or broken. It is incumbent on us not to run from our emotions, but to direct how we will behave in response to them.
“The reason we suffer from our emotion is not because of the emotion itself, but because of our resistance to that particular emotion.”