Guilt is another a difficult emotion to deal with. It is painful and we are often confused about how to deal with it.
The key to working effectively with guilt is contemplative thinking that leads to disciplined action.
The purpose of guilt.
Guilt is about relationships. The purpose of guilt is to warn us that what we did, are doing, or are planning to do may damage a relationship. The relationship may be with another person or people. It may be the relationship we have within ourself, with the person we want to be. It may be with a family, a group, or a community. And it may be with God. This warning system is necessary for us to function as social beings. If we damage relationships without realizing that we are doing so, we can end up isolated and friendless. So the purpose of guilt is to help us avoid damaging relationships; to help us keep our relationships healthy.
If guilt is supposed to keep relationships healthy, why does it make us feel so unhealthy?
Guilt usually makes us feel sick because we don’t know how to use it constructively. Instead we ruminate, judging ourselves as “bad”, assuming how upset others are, avoiding the others, and worrying about how things can become worse. If we think we deserve to be punished then this rumination can serve that purpose, since it is quite painful. But it is not helpful.
Guilt is supposed to lead to discipline, not punishment. We can contemplate our guilt. We identify the relationships that the guilt may be warning us about, and then we can explore and ask to get more information about those relationships so we can plan how to repair them. We thus discipline ourselves, teaching ourselves to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
Why do we feel guilty when we haven’t done anything wrong?
Since relationships are critically important our warning system, guilt, is overly sensitive. In this way guilt is like fear. Just as we can feel fear when we are not in danger, we can feel guilt when we have not done anything to damage a relationship. We can use the contemplative skill of asking so that we can determine if what we have done has damaged the relationship or not. If not, then we can be reassured. If we have upset the other person, but minimally and the relationship is not harmed, then that is also reassuring. We would want to note the behavior that upset the other person and try to avoid doing it in the future. If we find that we have damaged the relationship then we need to work on repairing the damage, and show evidence that we will avoid the damaging behavior in the future. When we work with guilt in this way we are able to engage in dialogue with the people we relate to and the relationships can develop and become healthier.
Why do we feel guilty at times when we are doing something healthy or necessary?
Many times we need to prioritize our relationships. We have to put more energy into some and less into others. For example, if we are developing the relationship with our spouse, then we will have less energy for our friends. We will naturally feel guilty about putting less energy into those relationships. Sometimes our relationships with our friends need attention and we have to give our spouse less attention. So we will feel guilty about that. Instead of judging ourselves as “bad” for feeling guilty, we can use the guilt as something to explore and make sure that we protect both the relationship with our spouse and the relationships with our friends, balancing those in a healthy manner.
Sometimes we can find ourselves feeling guilty when we are making a life change that may damage relationships. For example, if we take a promotion at work, then that may damage the relationships with our co-workers who will now be our subordinates. Or we may be moving to a new location and leaving friends and family behind. In cases like that we need to reflect on our values and decide if the relationships are more important than making the life change. If so, then we will need to find a way to preserve them even if that means delaying or avoiding the life change. However, we are then allowing our values guide our decision, not the guilt. The guilt helps us explore and reflect on the situation in the context of our values.
An extreme example of this is when someone is leaving a dangerous relationship and feels very guilty about the actions she is taking to end the relationship. This can make her feel confused and she may wonder if there is some part of her that is self-sabotaging. However, no such self-sabotage is happening. It is natural for her to feel guilty because she is damaging the relationship. The mind does not care if the relationship is dangerous. Since she is damaging the relationship her mind warns her with guilt. In this case the guilt is a sign that she is acting effectively. She needs to interpret the guilt in that manner and continue those effective actions.
Guilt warns us that we may be damaging a relationship. We use contemplative skills to examine the guilt and determine if that warning is valid. If not, then we can ignore it. If we are damaging a relationship we must make sure the relationship is healthy according to our values. If so, then we act to repair the relationship, keeping in mind the priority of the other relationships we are in, and we discipline ourselves to avoid damaging the relationship in the future. If the relationship is not healthy then we act to change or end the relationship and discipline ourselves to make that happen effectively.