Guilt may be defined as a remorseful awareness of having done something wrong.
It may also be seen as a self-reproach for supposed inadequacy or wrongdoing.
The feeling of guilt tends to evoke very strong emotions that are painful, hurtful and linger for long period of time.
The emotion of guilt, if not recognized and attended to appropriately, can create havoc by influencing our outlook to life in general and decisions in particular on matters that may be vital to our progress and well being.
In this context, it is vital that we remain ever vigilant for the appearance of the emotion of guilt in us and be aware as to how this emotion can influence us.
On becoming familiar with this feeling, we gain advantage over the fact that we may then pause to analyze the role of guilt in the thoughts we think, the words we speak and the actions we undertake in our day to day living.
The result of such analysis and introspection is to understand the appropriateness of this feeling influencing us in a particular situation and therefore the beneficial or harmful consequences accrued as a result of its influence on us.
Genesis of Guilt
Let us now see the cause and reason for the development of the feeling of guilt in us.
In our developing years of life, we are taught fundamentals of appropriate behavior and conduct in society through imbibing certain values and morals.
The major contributors of this are our parents and the extent to which we as children imbibe these lessons of values and morals from them and demonstrate them in appropriate situations forms the barometer by which we gain “love” and “looks of approval” from them.
At that point in time, as helpless children, gaining approval and words of love and appreciation from our parents becomes a very important aspect of feeling secure.
Therefore, we blindly adopt certain values and morals and incorporate them into our personality in return for the feeling of acceptance and security from our parents.
In addition to the generally and widely accepted values and morals, we are also simultaneously forced to imbibe certain beliefs and prejudices prevailing in the family and culture into which we are born.
These very beliefs and prejudices are firmly linked to the pleasant feelings of security we gained from our parents as children.
Over the years, we became habituated to certain responses in different situations that conformed to the beliefs and prejudiced opinions imbibed, so as to evoke the pleasant feeling of security time and again.
These become conditioned responses that get firmly etched in our subconscious mind.
The conscious mind that operates in the present context remains unaware about these automatic responses and the secure feeling these responses evoke in us.
We may call these responses as “operating in our zone of comfort”.
These set of values, morals, beliefs and prejudices that are deeply rooted in our subconscious and linked strongly to the pleasant feeling of security, become our compass by which we think, speak, act and behave in life.
Later on in life, as grown ups, we come to realize that some of those beliefs and prejudices which we had earlier accepted blindly, were misplaced and moreover are no longer appropriate in the present context.
But, despite this realization, when we attempt to behave in a manner that does not conform to the beliefs and prejudices accepted unconditionally earlier in life, we feel insecure and uncomfortable.
This uncomfortable and fearful feeling which keeps gnawing at us as a result of acts of commission or omission that do not conform to our set beliefs is referred to as guilt.
Purpose of Guilt
Guilt is an emotional warning sign that most people learn through their normal childhood social development.
Its purpose is to let us know when we have done something wrong, to help us develop a better sense of our behavior and how it could affect us and others.
It prompts us to re-examine our behavior so that we do not end up making the same mistake again.
Methods of dealing with and overcoming Guilt
- Recognizing the kind of guilt surfacing in a particular situation is an important factor in dealing effectively with this emotion.
For instance, if we feel guilty after eating a heavy and high calorie meal, while at the same time going through a weight reduction programme, the feeling of guilt is rational, as its emergence in us prompts us to re-examine our behavior which is not conducive to our goal of weight reduction.
On the other hand, feeling guilt on having enjoyed a good meal with friends while the husband was out at work, is irrational, as it is based on an assumption that one is enjoying oneself while one’s spouse is hard at work in the office which may not be the case as in reality the husband may be enjoying his work in office and at the same time happy that his wife is having a good time with her friends.
- Making the necessary changes in behavior on understanding the true nature of the feeling of guilt, whether rational or irrational.
- Accepting the error in assessing the situation, learning from the experience and moving on without any regrets.
- Reminding ourselves that no one is ever perfect, that to err is human and that one does not have to berate oneself on mistakes committed as life always offers plenty of opportunities to rectify our mistakes.