The Many Faces of Guilt
Guilt is the only human emotion that requires our consent to thrive (with the possible exception of jealousy).
To feel guilt, not only do we have to earn it, but we also have to accept it.
It’s anger, disappointment, or shame in ourselves for something we did or didn’t do.
Real guilt comes from failing your own expectations for yourself.
Real guilt needs our permission to exist.
It’s sneaky and brilliant and invisible.
Guilt, like jealousy, will eat you from the inside out.
But instead of completely destroying you, it will leave you a mangled and unrecognizable mess of a human being.
It’s the worst kind of self-induced punishment, and it’s the most evil form of manipulation.
That’s why we have to guard ourselves against it. Good people are all too susceptible to feeling guilt for things they have no business feeling guilty about.
I’ll give you a personal example from my own life.
My father left me when I was 4.
He was kind of around and kind of not around. I never really got to know him.
I’m approaching thirty now and my mom still expects me to love him.
At first I felt really guilty because I wasn’t able to. I just couldn’t.
I knew he was my dad and we had some great first years together (not that I can remember), but I just couldn’t love him no matter how hard I tried.
I felt like a terrible person.
I felt guilty for not loving my dad. Then I felt angry at my mom for making me feel guilty. Then I felt guilty for being angry at my mom.
I was forced to really think about why I was feeling guilty about something I felt so right about.
I wasn’t failing my own expectations, so it couldn’t be real guilt. It must have been something else.
Years later I realized that the guilt I felt for not living up to my mothers expectations was actually resentment at having those expectations placed on me in the first place.
I didn’t deserve to feel guilty and he didn’t deserve my love.
Not all parents earn the love of their children. He wasn’t there to pick me up from school, take care of me when I was sick, yell at me when I misbehaved, sit at every doctor’s appointment with me like my mom was.
I wish all of the time that I could know what a father-daughter bond feels like, but I can’t.
Does it make me sad? Definitely.
Do I feel guilty? Not anymore.
And I’m not any less of a person for it.
The Anatomy of Guilt
Sometimes we know when we feel guilty, and sometimes the guilt is hidden in our psyche. Here are a few ways to tell if you, or someone else is feeling guilty:
- When you think about something you did or didn’t do, you feel like crap.
- You feel like you need to rationalize or justify your behavior, even when you weren’t asked to.
- You argue and get defensive when anyone talks about the behavior or action.
- When you think about your behavior, it’s painful.
- When you think about the behavior, you dislike yourself.
Knowing that you feel guilty doesn’t mean that you should actually be feeling guilty.
Many of our parents guilted us when we were children. Their intentions were good, but the result became an adult incapable of distinguishing between their values and the values of another.
This is important, because the only thing that matters is your relationship with yourself and your own values.
Ask yourself these questions:
- By whose standards are you judging?
- If the standards are yours, why do you believe in these standards? Are you sure they are your beliefs and not someone else’s?
- If the standards aren’t really yours, ask yourself what do you really believe about this issue?
- What if you were 120% sure that no one would ever find out. Would you still feel guilty?
The Relationship Between Guilt & Self-Esteem
The entire definition of guilt centers around berating yourself and punishing yourself for something you did/didn’t do.
Whether or not the guilt is real, it still leads to a loss of integrity.
You lose face with yourself, dislike yourself, feel pain, hate yourself.
In order for your self-esteem to remain healthy, you must address any lingering guilts you have.
Either cut off foggy guilts (below) or emancipate yourself from real guilt (below).
In the example with my dad, I was suffering from Foggy Guilt.
It’s a different emotion disguised as guilt because we’re afraid to confront the real emotion at hand.
The vast majority of our guilt is Foggy Guilt.
Not surprisingly, most of our guilt comes from the people we love – when they don’t approve of something or reproach us for our behavior.
Sometimes we’re intimidated by the values of others, so we feel guilty and sacrifice our self-esteem to placate them (leading to guilt).
Then there are times when you feel guilty because you’ve failed to live up to the expectations of someone else. You’ve disappointed them.
But what you’re feeling isn’t guilt. It’s anger. It’s anger at those who assumed they could place expectations on you that you didn’t believe in.
Instead of telling that person that you don’t give a rats ass what they ‘expected’ you to do, you hold it in and feel guilty because you’re afraid of confrontation.
If you feel like something is immoral, ask yourself if you really believe that, or if you’re afraid of challenging the beliefs of your loved ones.
Be willing to stand by and act on your own beliefs and convictions. To eliminate foggy guilt, you have to respect your own judgment over any one else’s.
I know, I hear you. You’re panicking. You’re all like ‘well, wtf am I supposed to do about it then?’
Relax, I’m getting there.
If you or a loved one are suffering from foggy guilt, call this hotline: 888-Liz-Rocks, or follow the steps below.
- Be honest with yourself. It always starts with honesty. Get used to it.
- Own your anger/intimidation/fear.
- Admit your resentment at standards and expectations not truly your own.
- Watch the guilt evaporate.
If feeling guilt weren’t an option, you’d probably demand to know by what right anyone expects you to do XYZ thing. Why are you obligated to live up to the expectations of others, but leave yours in the gutter?
You’re better than that kid. Don’t be a coward.
When You Really Mess Up
Now, there will be times when you mess up. You do something that’s against your beliefs and you feel terrible about it.
The solution is not to tell yourself that you’re an ass and you should die a horrible painful death in a pit of snakes and fire and flesh-eating bacteria (Ya. I’ve been there).
That just leads to more bad behavior. It leads to ‘well I’m a horrible person anyway so why bother’ kind of thinking.
Instead, have a little compassion. Yes, you’re wrong, but seek to understand your ways so that you never do it again. Feel remorse and regret instead of self-hatred.
- What were the circumstances?
- Why did you do what you did at the time?
- What were you trying to do?
- In what way were you trying to take care of yourself? (You acted out of self-interest, which is how you should always act unless you betray your values).
But it doesn’t end there.
That’s only the first step.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the blogosphere; I give you my 5 step plan:
- Understand the circumstances in which you behaved and replace that behavior with a different one so that you act with more integrity the next time.
- Own the fact that you did it.
- Acknowledge explicitly to anyone you hurt what you’ve done and tell them you understand the consequences of your behavior.
- Do everything you can to make amends or mitigate the harm you’ve caused.
- Make a firm commitment to behave differently in the future. If you don’t change, you’ll recreate self-distrust.
Guilt and compassion don’t mix.
As long as you keep thinking how horrible you are, you’re always going to feel defensive and self-protective and you’ll never be able to make amends.
Guilt is not something you should glorify in. It’s not a proper punishment. It’s a cop out.
It’s something you can hide behind so you don’t have to go through the challenge of making up for it: to yourself, and to the people you hurt.
‘I feel guilty enough already,’ should be replaced with, ‘I’m suffering so that should be enough punishment to satisfy you.’
But suffering is the easiest thing you can do.
It’s being happy that’s hard.
Again, true to ALOYT form, I have provided you with a handy infographic as a summary of the above. (Ironically, I felt guilty for not feeling like providing an infographic for this post. I realized that I wanted to and I’d be letting myself down if I didn’t.)
The End of Your Love Affair With Guilt
Are you having a secret love affair with guilt? Are you sure? Because it’s not hard to do.
Attaching ourselves to guilt makes it easy to stay passive about our behavior: “I’m guilt ridden, I’m a disappointment, I’ve always been a failure – that’s life, can’t change it.” Which actually means “Look, I have a great reason for you never to expect anything of me. And it’s not even my fault.”
Suffering is familiar.
How would you handle life if you didn’t have your depression and self-hatred to defend you?
Who knows what people will start expecting from you, what you will start expecting from yourself?
Unhappiness provides it’s own kind of safe haven, whereas happiness is more demanding – in terms of consciousness, energy, discipline, dedication, and integrity.
It takes courage to work at liberating ourselves from guilt.
It takes honesty and perseverance and a commitment to independence – and to living consciously, authentically, responsibly, and actively.
Depending on who you are, this can take a long time. You’re afraid of changing because you built your life around self-castigation, self-denial, and self-guilt.
It’s a prison you’ve built around yourself, and it’s easy to stay captive in your own chains.
Unfortunately, the prisons we build for ourselves are the hardest to escape from. You may wonder if you even have a right to escape at all?
You have so much more good inside of you than bad. Don’t let the overwhelming feeling of guilt prevent the good from prevailing.
Escape. Use the methods above and escape. You have a right to break free from your chains.
Are you really going to let your fear of change rule your life?
There are no buts and there are no excuses that are valid enough to justify throwing the majority of your life away for fear of giving up your guilt and suffering.
You have a right to release yourself from the expectations of others and focus on your own expectations.
I understand you’re afraid, but to not try at all is inexcusable. It’s unacceptable. It’s a slap in the face of life.
I’m here to tell you that you have a right to a guilt free life.
So go and live it.