Dealing With Guilt


In today’s podcast I  examine one of the most debilitating emotions that all of us either have experienced or will experience some time in the future.

So what is guilt?

Guilt is when you feel badly about your behaviors or actions! When you do things that you know you shouldn’t have done. It is when you transgress against one of your own values or morals.

You also feel guilt when you fail to meet some standard of behavior that is set by other people and which you may have subscribed to or believed in. For example, your broke a rule that your church has set… So you feel guilty for your so-called ‘sin’.

Sometimes people feel guilt when they know they should have done something – but they didn’t. For example, you unwittingly hurt someone emotionally… you know you should have apologized… but you didn’t. And now, with a bit of reflection, you feel genuinely guilty – not only for your actions… but for not apologizing.

Or you know you should have given your seat in the bus to the old lady who could barely stand up… but you didn’t. And then someone at the back of the bus gave up her seat to the elderly woman. And you feel a tinge of something.

Additionally, people may feel guilt because of their failure to meet ‘obligations’ and ‘responsibilities’ that they had already accepted were theirs.

The word guilt has some interesting roots. It comes from ‘gylt’ and ‘gilt’ in older forms of English meaning ‘crime’!

I know that many people want to know the difference between shame and guilt… I will fully discuss shame in another podcast. And then, after that in a follow-up podcast I will discuss the distinctions between both.

Right now, though, I will offer this teasing difference: Feeling guilty is regretting a behavior that you did or didn’t do; Feeling shame is about regretting some aspect of who you think you are as a person. So for example, you feel guilty about not helping the old lady with the cane across the street, and you feel shame at your failure to do so because that is not who you are (or how you are raised)! (What would your mother think of you?) Guilt and shame can walk hand in hand… but they are different and have to be dealt with differently.

So our focus in this podcast though is on guilt.  Some experts theorize that guilt helps us to uphold community and group values, mores, laws and standards of acceptable behavior.  Of course these terms are fluid since they may depend quite heavily on your religion, national origin, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, political affiliation, race, beliefs – and a myriad of cultural and other factors.

So for example, these days a teenager may not feel any guilt in competing with a really old man with a cane for a seat on the bus! While, generally, forty years ago (maybe even less than that) a teenager from the same city, same ethnic background, would have been helping the man to the seat and making sure he was comfortable. As a matter of fact – back then – everybody on the bus would have been competing to offer the man a seat!

Now – to be clear – the guilt that we are talking about is not the guilty verdict from a jury or judge! We are talking about the guilt that you feel. And, researchers have even pointed to different classes of guilt. One of those is what is called “Survivor’s Guilt”! This is when you may have survived an incident while others did not. So for example, the lone survivor of a car crash, the driver, feels guilty that she survived and her three best friends didn’t.

And then there is unresolved guilt where an individual may feel that they have not done enough to amend for their behavior. Sometimes these feelings of unresolved guilt persist for a long time even though you have done quite a bit to make apologize and even make amends.

One of the most disturbing issues within the human experience is some people’s inability to feel guilt. Such people are often diagnosed with what’s called “Anti-social personality disorder”. As mental disorders go… this is probably the worst that anyone can be diagnosed with. It is also a dangerous one – for the rest of us – for society that is. Why? Because this is how most serial killers are diagnosed.

The outstanding traits of this disturbance are an inability to feel love, empaty, or loyalty towards other people and a lack of guilt or remorse for one’s actions. Unable to base their actions on anything except their own immediate desires, persons with this disorder demonstrate a pattern of impulsive, irresponsible, thoughtless, reckless, and sometimes criminal behavior. In other words they lack what we generally call “a conscience”…. They have no moral compass and so they do whatever they like and feel no regret or remorse…

So that is the most negative characterization of being ‘guilt-less’.

But… this type of diagnosis is rare… Most people have a moral compass – and so they do feel guilt when they violate their own values or any of society’s moral codes of conduct.

People feel guilty not only about their actions and behaviors… but also about their thoughts. For example, you think about something that you believe is morally wrong… or you think about doing something that violates your own sense of ethics and highest values… And when you reflect on your thoughts… you chide yourself because you feel guilty… guilty at having the thoughts…

So let’s be clear that guilt is about how you feel… and not about how others feel. Guilt is about how you feel about what you say, do or even think.

And if your feeling of guilt persists… then you are the one who is perpetuating the feeling. The good thing about this is that you can address it and end it… You do have the power to deal effectively with the guilt.

So how do you deal with guilt?

Some experts suggest that the person who feels guilty can apologize to others and try to make amends. Sometimes this is difficult. For example, in the case where the driver’s friends are dead… there is no opportunity to apologize to them. And, apologizing to their family members might be a first step… but may not be enough to neutralize or even minimize the feelings of guilt.

Other techniques include getting expert coaching and counseling that will help the individual put events into a broader or different perspective. So, for example, with the example above, an expert counselor might draw from several techniques in his/her toolbox. One strategy might be the Gestalt Therapy “Empty Chair Technique” which would allow the driver to ‘talk with’ her deceased friends! Other techniques can be drawn from Hypnosis, NLP, Cognitive Therapy, etc.

Sometimes there is an irrationality about feelings of guilt. Take for example the driver of the car where her three friends were killed. The accident may have been cause by a drunk driver and therefore she was not at fault. So her feelings of guilt might border on being irrational. But the fact that she knows that she is not at fault – may not be enough to change her strong feelings of survivors remorse. In this case, a competent therapist may consider Rational Emotive Therapy to help her unravel and then deal with the links between her irrational thoughts and her feelings.

While it can keep some people stuck and wallowing in their feelings, guilt can also be a message to us that says that we need to take action to repair relationships, to adjust our behaviors, to change the way we live our lives and so much more. So, sometimes, there is a lesson to be learned from our guilty feelings and we need to take the time or seek help in identifying what those lessons are.

Other steps to resolving guilt include that we accept that we did something wrong, apologize, amend what we did if possible, and move forward with our lives. The idea is to keep moving up, out of and forward from our ‘stuck zone’. We must learn from our mistakes and take steps to avoid repeating them because the next time the feelings of guilt will be much stronger and more deeply embedded in our psyche.

We must also recognize that we are not perfect and that we are all works in progress, hopefully moving towards our ideals. And for each of us, those ideals are different. We, as individuals, must have a sense of what our own expectations, values and standards are so that when we violate them… we can adjust our behaviors (if we want to), and move on.

As we deal with our feelings of guilt we also have to make sure that we are moving. That we are not allowing those feelings to keep us stuck and wallowing in self-pity… that we are doing positive things on a daily basis… that we are doing things that exemplify the best of who we are. This movement must persist even if we still have residual feelings of guilt. We must keep moving even as we deal with those feelings.

Look in the mirror and ask yourself… Am I punishing myself? And if the answer is yes… then ask: In what ways am I doing so? Once you understand how you are punishing yourself, you can begin to put a plan in place so that you can change your self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors… so that you can begin to do more positive things for yourself.

Finally, sometimes the best, but admittedly the hardest thing you can do is – let it go. You can say to yourself… that was then… this is now. I wouldn’t do that now… I can and will and am living my life differently. I am learning to treat others differently. I am now beginning to practice a life where I demonstrate my values in the things that I do and say.

I have my regrets… and those are over my shoulder and I have let those go. I am glad that they are gone… away from me. I am learning to behave and think and live differently based on my ideals, my hopes, my morals and the best of me!

I will leave the past and live in the now as I move to and embrace a future that I am contributing to in the most positive ways!