Guilt is an unpleasant feeling of remorse or sadness for past actions. It can happen when a person does something that goes against his/her moral code or feels as if he or she has wronged somebody.
It’s one thing to feel guilt after actually doing something wrong or hurtful to another person. It’s quite another to carry around a burden of excessive and unjustified guilt. The first sort of guilt is a signal from our conscience that we’ve violated our own sense of morality. This signal helps us regulate our social behaviour and learn how to get along with others.
The second sort of guilt is a blight. It can paralyse us with fear, worry, anxiety, humiliation and eventually a deep, possibly suicidal self-loathing. The emotional fallout of needless guilt can range from chronic fatigue to such self-punishing behaviours as alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual dysfunction, accident-proneness, and psychosomatic illness.
A critical, unforgiving conscience turns against the self-nagging away at all sorts of thoughts, feelings and acts. Frequently this crippling guilt is grounded in the past. We sometimes carry along harsh judgements from the past to the present, even though we have changed. The weight of this self-blame can be enormous: The guilt-ridden victim feels bad, worthless, unlovable, unfit for human companionship. Guilt can thus drive a wedge between an individual and the rest of the world. Perhaps even more painful and damaging, guilt can also separate us from ourselves: We can end up truly alone, without even ourselves for support and interior friendship.
This remorse and loss of self-esteem is like paying endless instalments on a stiff fine for a past crime. Yet the guilt-ridden individual may never have done anything really wrong. Children are easily shamed into feeling unworthy and bad; some never grow out of this. Even if they can look back to some genuine past wrongdoing, beating oneself up with guilt feelings will only get in the way of their making changes and improvements that could enrich their life and that of others.
It’s often very difficult to let go of guilt, whether or not its justifiable. Some people look for forgiveness by suffering. They think that if they endure enough guilty misery they will earn release. Some people find it easier to dwell on the past than to deal with the present. They concentrate on their old sins and avoid taking creative risks and assuming responsibility now. Compulsively paying off a debt of guilt to parents, spouse, or children can be a way of acting moralistically but actually neglecting to use ones freedom and power to do real good in the world.
Feeling excessively or inappropriately guilty is a psychological habit that can be broken. If a person recognizes guilt as a destructive force in their life, they must take the opportunity to look carefully at it so that they can understand it and get rid of it. By putting their guilt feelings into perspective, they can begin working on becoming a more creative, self-assured, loving person.
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