Guilt: Jamie blamed herself for her husband's affair: "I guess I deserved it", she said. "I was totally preoccupied by my work and didn't pay any attention to his needs".
Guilt: Aaron blamed himself for his family's financial difficulties: "This couldn't have been a worse time to think of leaving my job to become an entrepreneur".
Guilt: Megan blamed herself for not being able to rescue her father from himself: "All he ever wanted as for someone to accept him while he was alive, and all we could do was critique his ways".
Guilt: David blamed himself for watching pornography secretly: "I can't believe I'm doing this at night when my wife and kids are at home sleeping"
We are fraught with guilt in ways that we could never truly imagine. From the obvious to the ever so subtle, guilt is like a cancer that eats away at our permission to act. We think that this sacrifice is okay- we make a contract with the devil of guilt because we recognize that the norms that we contradict are the very ones we have in place to protect us from sociopaths, criminals and our own impulses. Yet few people recognize how impactful guilt is on human action-how even when we are not consciously worrying about our heinous acts, that guilt is the shackle that keeps us connected to our suffering.
To overcome guilt, people try to make amends. Partners, friends, confessionals and therapists all come to hear how we regret our silly impulses and putting our norms and others in danger when all we consciously want is to follow the rules or toe the line. We read religious and spiritual texts and popular magazines that tell us to "love ourselves" - a great idea, but one that seldom works in a conventional way. All the people I have ever met who "love themselves" seem to be trying to convince others and themselves that they are worth it. It is a very difficult thing to do in a consistent way.
But why does guilt prevent us from being our greatest selves, and what can we do about this?
1. Guilt keep us connected to suffering: By "punishing" ourselves in all sorts of conscious and unconscious ways, we alleviate the pressure of guilt, because we feel as though we are paying for our sins.
2. Guilt keep us toeing the line: Rather then leading with our full power, guilt keeps us in check and keeps us rooted to following others rather than following our greatest passions.
3. Guilt creates fear: Nobody who is guilty wants to be found out. So guilt keeps us afraid and wanting to be out of the limelight. It keeps us trapped in the dark because we fear being known. In effect, we give up our right to freedom and exploration to avoid being caught.
4. Guilt creates inertia: Every time we want to act, unconscious guilt can stop us in our tracks and re-directs us onto paths that may be away from our greatest selves. People who want to avoid being visible will often hide in self-employment, non-public service jobs and away from the camera so as to maintain their private guilt.
What then, can we do about this? I propose that self-forgiveness is a good start. But what is this, if guilt is the all-powerful force that it is? People often think that self-forgiveness is "forgetting" and "forgetting" seems so impossible when we are tortured by our own actions. But I would like to propose a different mechanism.
I believe that we can think of ourselves as having "core" selves and "peripheral" selves, and that the strong impulses that keep us from honoring our ideal selves are most often our peripheral selves. As such, we can disconnect our regrets from our "identity". We can recognize that even after we acknowledge our wrongs or impulses that we can't avoid, that we don't have to be ruthlessly avoidant of them. We can softly recognize these impulses as whisperings of our individuality that conflict with social norms, and we can know that we, at our core, are distinct from these regrets. How can we justify this?
We can do so by always refining our intentions.
Jamie can say: "I want to pay more attention to my husband's needs and when I forget this, I want to encourage him to remind me of this"
Aaron can say: "Maybe my lack of success in entrepreneurship was driven by my guilt and if I put aside the dangers for my family, I may allow myself to recognize that I am also doing this for them"
Megan can say: "When I next get the chance to know someone, I will keep myself from trying to make them into something that they are not.
David can say: "I want to keep my secret from hurting anyone. And as I think about why I am doing this, and whether it is worth continuing, I will recognize that I am more than just this one regretful activity".
All of us can say: "We deserve to free ourselves from the shackles of guilt. For when we do, we will pay for our sins by offering the world our greatest selves".