“Contrary to some beliefs, guilt is not something that builds character.”
As described in an article by Rabbi Jack Cohen of UPenn, “we shouldn’t be so quick to point fingers and place blame on the ‘worsening of the times’ as we are the ones that are guilty of using the emotion of guilt as the inter-generational glue that keeps the family together, pulling them together on holidays and special events. At a loss for a draw that characterizes the intrinsic value of what we’re doing, we reach for the nearest, most potent potion to achieve the desired effect.”
No doubt, guilt does work. With it, according to Cohen, we can ensure that the tradition of the “family experience” as the “guilty experience” is passed on to the next generation so that they in turn can pass on its burden to their kids. Guilt doesn’t have to be explicit. It is actually most effective when unspoken. You can let your victim stew in their own juices without as much as a raised eyebrow. A flashing frown. A gentle grimace. Perhaps the ever-so-subtle clearing of the throat.
When we end up associating our family events with obligations made to avoid feeling guilt, we may find ourselves relying on guilt as our “go-to” response. This motivation becomes counter-productive in building and enhancing intimate and family relationships.
“Feeling guilty, when we have disappointed or hurt someone, makes us feel like victims. A strong dose of guilt can lead us to feel bad about ourselves and may lead us right back to reliving our mistakes. In principle, guilt should imply a sense of responsibility. But twisted in this way, it has the opposite effect, making one feel helpless without a way out.”
Some people have such an unpleasant history with guilt that they choose to live as if their actions and words have no consequence, oblivious that these acts or words can cause pain to those they care about.
A middle path does exist.
In some traditions, “repentance does not center around penitence, guilt and feelings of inadequacy. Repentance looks to the future – it is the process of returning,” to be the person one most profoundly wants to be and is capable of being.”
By identifying with the essence of who we are as good, mistakes are seen as occurring when we aren’t connected to ourselves. From this perspective, we can look forward and commit to not making the mistake again. “With the clarity I have now, I would never do such a thing.”
“While guilt is like a black hole that sucks one into the past, regret is a very precise psychological incision that surgically disassociates a person from their mistake.” By looking at something you did as a teenager that you would never do again, because you’ve grown since then, you can now see with detachment that unwise decision you made as a kid.
“The feeling of regret thus serves as the foothold from which we can push forward with confidence. Our sincere regret is evidence that we have morally matured and will not do it again. Having tasted failure, we have renewed vigor to succeed and not end up there again. By looking forward we can keep our heads up and doing something about it.”
Remorse, in its essence, can be constructive for us individually and in relationships. It can allow us to recognize when we have done something hurtful to ourselves or others, to take steps to make the situation right and make a conscious choice not to repeat it. If twisted into messages that urge us to compromise our integrity and values, guilt can create a viscous cycle that can eat away at the foundations of our close relationships.
If you are struggling with guilt, psychotherapy can help you sort through the roots of this cyclical emotion. It can help you transform guilt feelings into in constructive realizations and resolutions, allowing you to make positive changes in your self esteem, your relationships and your life.
If you’re ready to take the next step, schedule an appointment with Lind Butler, psychotherapist Houston.