Guilt is a terrible emotion. Most often, it’s not called for. Countless good people flog themselves with guilt for minor offenses, imagined wrongs or failures, and unavoidable human frailties.
So, let me ask you, what is guilt? You know when you feel guilty, but do you know what guilt is? The dictionary defines guilt as:
a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined. (Emphasis mine.) Also, being judged for an offense and found guilty.
Guilt, of course, has a direct association with “having a conscience”, our sense of “right” and “wrong” and how we respond to our inner Judge. Many folks have a merciless inner Judge and they use it to abuse themselves constantly over things they’ve done–or believe they’ve done–that they judge as wrong. Even worse, people feel guilt over things they’ve done that other people judge as wrong, or would judge as wrong if others knew about it. Thus shame, secrecy and repression have become part of the human psychological makeup and the lucrative, circuitous profession of “Freudian psychoanalysis” was born.
A principle belief of our Christian culture is that guilt is one of those things in life that is both justified and necessary. We have been told we are born guilty (in sin) and that we need to either be redeemed or get punished. This “blanket acceptance” of guilt seeps into all aspects of our psyche and has a direct impact on every area of our lives. As a society, we have grown increasingly enamored with punishment and we impose guilt on others based upon our own ideas of right and wrong. But for the purpose of healing ourselves of the sufferings of guilt, we must also realize how much we impose guilt upon ourselves, based upon other people’s ideas of right and wrong.
Most people “police” themselves based on consensus opinion and in particular, they worry far too much about what other people think, or might think, about them. This is a very dysfunctional substitute for conscience, because when we act a certain way for the approval of others, we are not using our inner compass about proper and improper behaviors. We are not in touch with the Spirit within us, which is the source of true, authentic conscience.
Other people do not have any divine prerogative to tell you what is right and what is wrong about the way you live your own life. They are free to share their ideas and to live by their own codes, but ultimately you are the one who must decide for yourself how to best live your own life. We are accustomed to judging ourselves by other people’s standards when our own hearts, our own intentions, our own spiritual beliefs, and our own reasoning may very well be leading us in another direction altogether.
Different societies and cultures have different morals or differing rules of right and wrong. Thus, actions in one society would not induce guilt whereas in another society, it would. For example, some collective groups believe having more than one wife is good, and that men are entitled to help themselves to sexual opportunity. Tell a typical, married American woman that and watch the blood in her veins start to boil. No punishment is too severe for such a crime, she tells herself, and she hopes he would feel guilty and miserable this very instant, for the rest of his useless life, and into the Great Beyond.
The Western world, at least, views guilt as a necessary payback: most people have been raised to pace themselves to the tune of that spiritual dirge. We hardly ever question whether this is a true spiritual principle, when in fact we do need to question our allegiance to judgment and guilt. After all, we have almost entirely forgotten a very necessary companion principle of Judgment, which is called Mercy.
Mercy, a Simple Word for a Powerful Principle
One of the great mistakes that human beings make is that they look to God for mercy but aren’t ready to bestow it upon themselves or each other. Mercy is defined as:
compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, compassion or benevolence: as in “Have mercy on the poor sinner.” The disposition to be compassionate; and something that gives evidence of blessing. (Emphasis mine.)
Clearly, the application of mercy forgoes the punishment of payback, as benevolence is a forgiving act that replaces a curse with a blessing. Far too many people punish themselves with guilt, when what they need the most is to bless themselves with forgiveness, when and if an offense has truly been committed. Most often the offense is perceived and contrived, based on skewed beliefs…and in that case, self-forgiveness is a matter of self-correcting the misperceptions. Too many wait for forgiveness from others before they will forgive themselves but, because we cannot control what others choose to do, and because we can only control ourselves, it really matters not whether others forgive you for a perceived wrong or actual wrong. What does matter is: will you forgive yourself?
How often I’ve heard people say, “I can’t” do something they need to do because they say, “I could never forgive myself.” These are often the people who are looking outside of themselves and gauging their actions on how other people would judge them or upon a distorted sense of obligation. They may need to get out of a wrong marriage, they may need to let go of a dysfunctional relationship pattern, they may be feeling the inner call to leave a particular religious affiliation…whatever the choice they need to make, they fear to do it not only for the outside impression of being found guilty of something, but for the inner guilt they feel they won’t be able to live with. So rather than suffer with guilt, they suffer from their choices to live against what their spirits long for…and suffer in silence, instead.
We are not taught to overcome guilt. We are not taught self-mercy and no wonder: when you look around at the world, mercy toward anyone is in critical short supply. Spirituality on this planet is in very shabby shape and its past time the human race began to equate the Divine with benevolence, love, and mercy instead of a hedonistic excess of judgment, punishment, and guilt. And if we can’t do that, it’s time to question our definitions of what it means to be Divine.
Do No Harm: The Motivation Behind the Action
A code of ethics or the basis for a determination of what is wrong and what is right does not need to be complicated. The Buddhists have boiled it down to a very simple guideline: “Do no harm.” To this I would add, “Place responsibility where it belongs.” In our self-assessment of whether we have done right or wrong, whether there is a reason for guilt or no reason for guilt, a clear knowledge of the motivations for our behavior should be the bedrock of our analysis.
With the ethic to do no harm, the motivation to either “do good” to ourselves (it is proper to do what is right for yourself!) and others, or to have a neutral impact on others, will be at the forefront of all our actions. Most injury to others, with its subsequent guilt, will not occur. With the ethic of placing responsibility where it belongs, we are standing accountable and sovereign and allowing others the same privilege. We are not obligated to save people from themselves; we are not obligated to carry a dysfunctional relationship or maintain an unbeneficial social obligation. We are not taking on the burdens and improper associations that cause us to carry loads of guilt for responsibilities toward others that do not belong to us, and have never belonged to us…even though we believed they did. The suffering caused by unnecessary guilt would be a thing of the past.
Three Steps to Heal Your Soul from Guilt
Obviously, a deeper discussion of this subject is beyond this article. Please watch for my upcoming e-book for more comprehensive ways to heal from guilt, but for now, here are three things you can do to ditch the guilt and get on with your life:
1. Decide that you don’t like to suffer and begin to challenge the beliefs that make you suffer. (Watch out! You are likely to feel guilty for challenging the beliefs that are causing the problem! Guilt in an incredibly tricky and addictive adversary; when it comes up, just say “No.”)
2. Understand. If it’s not good for you, it’s not good for someone else, either. (Example: If you are profoundly unhappy in a failed relationship but stay for the other person, you are not doing them a favor, you are hurting them by living a lie, while you are hurting yourself for no just reason.)
3. Let Go. Let live. Let it be. Don’t dwell on mistakes or injuries. Each day is a new day and a new opportunity. Don’t live in the past because it no longer exists. Be the best you can be, each day, and be in the moment.
May this short article bring you peace of mind, and may you know the freedom of self-love and mercy to all. Be blessed, my friends.