Guilt is a common feeling. It's uncomfortable, and something we try to avoid. To make matters worse it often comes with feelings of anxiety. And so like me, you may also be wondering...
Why do we feel guilty? Does it have a purpose? Does it do something useful? Or is it just to make us feel miserable?
So while shamelessly stealing from Monty Python's Life of Brian I ask,
"What has guilt ever done for us?"
Guilt, justice, and the law
The idea of guilt is also wrapped up in our legal system. Laws are a system of social rules which govern our behaviour. If we break one of these rules, then we have committed an offence. We are deemed to be guilty. It then requires us to serve some form of penance or make restitution. And once we have done our time, paid the fine, we have paid our dues, and are free of the guilt.
Ordinary guilt works similarly. It concerns our actions or lack of action and how that impacts on others.
When we say "I should have," or "Shouldn't have done that," we are often feeling guilt. And when we are using should in this way we are usually referring to breaking social rules. However unlike laws, these social rules are not written down, rather we are referring to largely unspoken norms which guide our behaviour.
And like the legal sense of guilt, ordinary guilt is concerned with offence. Causing offence or harm to others.
When we feel guilty our response is to either serve a penance, or to make restitution in some way. The commonest way we do this is by saying sorry. We might also try to make it up to the person in some way. So if as parent I feel guilty about the lack of time I spend with my children, I may make that up by buying presents for them, or being more generous in other ways.
Looked at this way, guilt helps us by telling us when our actions are likely to cause harm or offence to others. It allows us to recognise when we are breaking social rules and enables us to take moral actions. And importantly it allows us to right wrongs, so we can maintain relationships with others.
But like any feeling, guilt can also become a problem. Feeling overwhelming guilt because we haven't promptly returned a friend's phonecall, is out of proportion with our action. Our guilt is overestimating the amount of harm or offence we have caused. It's very likely we haven't caused any offence at all.
Learning to be guilty
Up until the age of around two and half to three, we can do pretty much anything we want, and our parents tolerate it. We can cry, make loud noises, and also poo and wee when and where we like, usually without any form of censure.
However we also start developing language around this time, and as soon as we do, our parents and the people who care for us, start educating us about social rules. The same rules they have been taught. They also teach us about guilt.
"What did you do that for?"
This interaction contains a formula for feeling guilt. Firstly, the parent asks the child to contemplate their actions, to justify them. Secondly to consider the consequences of those actions, and finally to make restitution for the harm they have caused.
There is also a further important component. The child experiences the parent being angry with them for failing to display the correct amount of guilt, and the child learns that displaying guilt defuses the anger of their parent. Guilt helps repair the damage caused by their actions.
And it also provides the child with social learning of the correct way to respond to others if they fail to display sufficient guilt - get angry. In Polly Toynbee's article she directs her anger at George Osborne for displaying too little guilt. She also sets out how he could make restitution,
Without a grovelling apology and a Scrooge-repentant commitment to a life-long campaign to reverse the damage he did, his cognitive dissonance – or hypocrisy – defies belief.
Polly Toynbee in The Guardian
Keeping the past alive, creating hope for the future
Following a bereavement, guilt is a very common feeling. It is often encapsulated by saying things like, "I should have been there... should have done more... should have stood up to the hospital more... shouldn't have agreed for them to go to that nursing home"
This kind of guilt is important in making us check that we did everything we could to save the person, and it usually eases once we ascertain that there was nothing else we could have done.
For some people the feeling of guilt remains. And you might think this is not serving a purpose, however for some people it is adaptive. Guilt allows us to travel back in time, and allows us the possibility that the person could still be alive. It keeps the person alive, by keeping alive the possibility they could still be here.
It also allows us to keep alive key parts of our identity. By remaining feeling guilty, you also keep alive the idea as a parent you are there to protect your child from harm. And for many people this is an essential component of being a parent. Giving up the guilt can also feel like giving up on your child, which is something you would never do.
The other aspect of guilt is that it affects how we behave in the future. It's an uncomfortable feeling, and the stronger it is, the more we want to avoid feeling it again. I know from my own personal experience and that of my family how we deal with doctors and hospitals has radically changed ever since my mother became ill. We are much more assertive - we no longer adopt a powerless position when talking to doctors.
Letting the right one in
Many people take on protector roles, and this applies not only to men, but also women. The protector role requires that you not only protect others from harm from outside, you also protect others from harm arising from you.
So we may choose not to disclose a medical condition because we want to protect the people around us from worry. And the reason we do this is because we feel guilty causing distress to people we care about. We want to protect them from ourselves.
If you look at this from the other way...
If you think about how you would feel if someone you cared about told you that they didn't tell you about something important because they didn't want to worry you. You might well feel hurt, rejected even, and you'd probably tell them, "Not to be so silly, of course you want to know!"
And people do want to know when the people they care about are not OK. People don't mind worrying, and you might even say, you want to be worried, or you need to be worried. However, guilt used in this way, also prevents people getting close to you.
When you do not allow yourself to show vulnerability, it also prevents people from getting to know the real you. The feeling of rejection, I talked about earlier, is a consequence of people who care about you feeling pushed away.
And you may think this is universally a bad thing, but...
If you have experienced harmful relationships in the past, guilt can also be a smart defence. Firstly it prevents you from harming others in the way that you have been harmed. It protects your identity. And it also acts as a filter.
By making it harder for people to get to know the real you, by not showing your vulnerabilities to others, you also protect yourself from harm in future relationships
Transforming thinking about feelings
We often think about feelings as either positive or negative. I often think that this good/bad way of thinking about feelings causes us to miss what feelings are really for.
Feelings are one of the more important ways our bodies makes sense of the world around us. They enable us to interpret and understand ourselves as well as others, while enabling us to respond to our world as it unfolds. They are neither good nor bad, rather they are information, albeit information that we are driven to respond to.
When we are dealing with difficult feelings, we tend to focus on the negative aspects of having them, and so we often miss the other side...
The important job the feeling is doing for us
main picture by TheHillaryClark via pixabay.com
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I am an experienced therapist in private practice in the Southampton area of England, UK. I see people from all walks of life, dealing with all sorts of problems.