Human beings have a seemingly endless capacity to feel guilty. We can condemn and attack ourselves for the stupid, wrong or inappropriate things we’ve done, again and again. We can even continue feeling guilty about events that happened many years ago. From the sensations we feel in our bodies when we think about those events, you’d think they happened just yesterday. We can still cringe and bury our faces in our hands when the old events surface in our minds. And we can still feel the ugly heat and tension in our torsos, necks and shoulders that we experienced in those old incidents.
We often have mixed feelings about whether guilt is helpful to us. On one hand, guilt is obviously very unpleasant and distracting to experience. On the other, however, we have the nagging sense that our guilt plays an important role in our lives. Isn’t guilt the feeling we get when our consciences punish us for the immoral things we’ve done? And if our consciences are disciplining us, isn’t that probably because we deserve it? Moreover, isn’t guilt what prevents us from acting wrongfully to serve our interests, and thus keeps our society from descending into violence and chaos?
I actually question the notion that, when we feel guilty, we are getting what we “deserve”—that our consciences are rightfully punishing us for the bad things we’ve done. I don’t think guilt serves that purpose at all. In fact, I believe that, most of the time, guilt doesn’t serve any useful purpose, and we’d be better off without it. To show you why I feel this way, I want to take you through a few observations about the way guilt manifests itself in our lives. As you read these observations, notice whether they change your perspective on the role of guilt, and whether you begin feeling more freedom from guilt in your life.
The guilt never stops. It seems that you can keep feeling guilty about the same incident indefinitely. Even ten or twenty years after an event, you can still find yourself reliving the event in your mind, with the accompanying discomfort in your body. Sometimes, you can forget about an old guilt-inducing event for a while, but when something happens in your life that reminds you of the event again, you return to the same old pattern of suffering over it.
But if guilt is your conscience punishing you for doing something wrong, wouldn’t you expect your conscience to understand the idea of fair punishment? That is, wouldn’t you expect it to have a sense of when you’ve “done your time,” enough is enough, and you don’t deserve to suffer anymore? The fact that you can continue suffering indefinitely over the same old episode suggests that guilt isn’t simply your conscience giving you your just desserts.
If you are continually agonizing over the same events from your past, I invite you to try this exercise. Consider how many times you’ve suffered over the same event before. If you have trouble remembering how often you’ve relived the incident, start keeping a journal or just marking a piece of paper to record how often it comes up. I think you’ll find that you’ve been recalling the event at least once per day, and that you’ll be more than a little disturbed by the possibility that you’ve been anguishing over the event every day since it happened.
Now, ask yourself whether you really deserve this amount of punishment for what you did. I think you’ll find it difficult to answer yes.
Guilt is stronger at certain times of day. Another strange feature of guilt is that we tend to remember more painful events, and the guilt surrounding those events seems more agonizing, at specific times of day. My own “guiltiest” time of day is between 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning. If I find myself waking up at this early hour, I know I’m in for a tour of the shameful and embarrassing events of my past. Now that I have this awareness, though, I’m more prepared for the mental onslaught and it doesn’t hit me as hard.
Take a look at your own experience. Is your guilt stronger and more painful depending on what hour of the day it is? If you answer yes, as I think you will, consider a few more questions. If guilt is really your conscience condemning you for your sins, why would your conscience punish you more severely at particular times of day? Are you more deserving of punishment, say, early in the morning than you are late at night? Wouldn’t you expect your conscience to simply reprimand you when you did something wrong, regardless of the time of day?
You feel guilty even when you haven’t acted wrongfully. If you pay close attention to the situations in which you experience guilt, you’ll notice that you feel guilty even about events in which you did nothing morally wrong. I used to feel the sensations I associate with guilt when remembering many such incidents. I would remember a significant other breaking up with me, and feel the tightness in my chest and shoulders that—for me—signal the presence of guilt. I would feel guilty about making a joke at a social occasion that nobody laughed at. I would feel guilty about times when I played poorly in a sports game. And so on. Although it would be hard to characterize the things I did in these situations as unethical, I was plagued by guilt over them nonetheless.
If guilt is a sign that your conscience is punishing you, why does your conscience discipline you even when you’ve done nothing wrong? Why does it attack you when you simply embarrass yourself or make a minor mistake? These experiences suggest that, when you are being ravaged by guilt, you are not simply suffering for your transgressions. Something else is going on—guilt is playing a different role in your life.
And how about that idea that guilt exists to keep us acting ethically? Let’s seriously examine that for a moment. Is the threat of guilt really the only thing preventing you from going on a crime spree right now? Do you ever think to yourself “you know, I’d really like to go out and commit lots of murders and robberies, but I’m afraid of how guilty I’d feel if I did?” I don’t think you do. I think you understand that murder and robbery are simply wrong, regardless of what feelings doing those acts would produce in your body, and that is why you don’t do them.
I’ve talked a lot about the misconceptions we tend to hold regarding guilt, but not about what guilt actually is and the function it performs. I’ll offer my thoughts on those issues in the next part of this article.