Over the last couple of years, I watched nearly identical tragic romances unfold, and having a window on these two relationships reminded me not only of the immense influence of guilt on some people’s decision making, but the amazing absence of guilt that some people may feel in nearly identical circumstances. These “tragic romances” I’m referring to were fairly common stories of marriages in which the woman believed the man had become emotionally or sensually vacant, tried to address the problem, and then, out of frustration, turned to infidelity to find the attention they craved.
The woman in one of these relationships expressed very little guilt about her actions, and moved on to get divorced. In the other instance however, the woman apparently felt enough guilt that she eventually rejected a man she had told repeatedly for several years that she loved, and returned to the psychologically abusive relationship with her husband. It was the latter situation that struck me more; as this friend sobbed about the dual guilt of hurting one man to return to the one she had cheated on, I did my best to encourage her to do what she thought was right, and suggested that while it was alright to feel badly about doing something one knows is “wrong”, it’s literally toxic to ourselves to dwell in the guilt. I suggested that once she had acknowledged to herself some wrongdoing, that she “shed that shroud of guilt” and move on.
There’s a remarkable range of things a person probably should feel guilty about, but I can’t help noticing the widely disparate manifestations of guilt or lack thereof that we encounter in modern life. The other day, I was talking to a fellow whose wages were being garnished because of a student loan that was in default, and I asked him how he would feel about mass protest to dismiss or defer student debt. He said he wouldn’t support it. I asked him why – in light of the fact that bankers and politicians were dumping the debt for their financial failures on current and future generations of taxpayers through bailouts – he wouldn’t demand a reciprocal arrangement. He said that what they did was wrong, but that didn’t mean he didn’t owe the debt he had taken on.
That pretty effectively sums up the poles of the range of human responses to feeling guilt over wrongdoing right there. Regardless of the fact that a person may be able or likely to find rationalizations for wrongdoing (especially if the rewards are high enough, as with emotion or riches), there is one kind of person who will feel genuine guilt whether or not they get caught, and another kind of person who will NOT feel genuine guilt whether they get caught or not.
If you’re in the latter camp, I’m not sure why you’re reading this; there’s a decent chance that you’re mildly sociopathic! But if you’re like most of us, you may find yourself in situations where guilt gnaws at you for a variety of reasons. While guilt serves a perfectly positive purpose – it’s our own negative reinforcement for behaviors that don’t benefit us – it can also be a poison that dwells within us, and eventually destroys us.
In the simplest view, there are really only two kinds of guilt. Guilt about something you did, or guilt about something you didn’t do. They can both be incredibly self-destructive, and they can both be fairly easily dealt with, once you identify lingering guilt as the little monster that it is. But that’s probably the real problem. Many people don’t even REALIZE they’re driven by guilt. Are you? Do you fret about how you could have done a better job on something at work? About how you don’t spend enough quality time with your family? Those are both just as likely to be forms of perfectionism, which is another issue worth looking at. Do you feel guilt about how you broke little Jane or Johnny’s heart in college, or the friend you jilted at some point in the past? The first two items aren’t really that hard to deal with. It’s simple as CHANGING YOUR BEHAVIOR. Do better next time at work, learning from the mistakes you made. Spend more time with the family! How hard is that? And the latter two things can end up being almost comical once one takes the right steps toward addressing them. Quite often, when we go to repair this kind of guilt by reaching out to make amends, we discover that the person we thought we had harmed cares so little that they barely remember who we are! Sometimes guilty obsessions can honestly be that out of proportion with reality. The guilt factory in our head can be quite productive.
The strategy for minimizing guilt in your life is actually pretty damn simple. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t fear. Communicate! Things like the infidelity I mentioned at the top arise from one’s fear of the confrontation one thinks will result from expressing one’s true feelings. Telling someone what you think will almost never have results as negative as those that come from subterfuge, deceit, and avoiding the facts.
Dealing with persistent guilt has other solutions, but they all center around self-forgiveness. If you’ve done your best to make amends or change your behavior, and are still feeling guilt, there are several things that can help you. One is simply time. While a confession or making an amend can sometimes provide instant, almost magical relief, sometimes we just need to process and heal. Another is obviously therapy. Talk therapy can really help us hear the fallacy of our own thoughts, and free us to move on. And if you have faith or a spiritual side, ponder the fact that while bringing your problem to a church figure may actually AGGRAVATE the problem, since guilt is one of the key tools of many religious organizations, the PRINCIPLES of your faith may provide an incredibly easy answer. Most faiths and spiritual practices have something devoted especially to release from guilt. Think of the entire purpose of a figure like Jesus, for instance, who – if you believe the teachings – was sent here to free us from our human flaws, partly by acknowledging that we all have them!
It may just be time to shed that shroud of guilt you’re wearing.
It’s not very becoming.