What is guilt?
Guilt is a judgment by your Internal Critic (more specifically, the judgmental voice in your head). It derives from the Ego and its constant worry that you are not good enough. Ultimately, this arises from childhood conditioning.
Guilt is a global judgment about the self rather than a judgement on the actions we have taken. It is important to keep this distinction in mind, since while you may have done bad things, that doesn’t make you a bad person.
Guilt results in the mind endlessly going over scenes from the past with a damning commentary that triggers worry and anxiety. It paralyses us and keeps us locked in self-disgust. Very often this leads to low self-esteem and a state of hopelessness over oneself, and from there to depression. Strangely, the Internal Critic interprets the anxiety and depression it has created as ‘proof’ that you are, indeed, a thoroughly bad person.
Meanwhile the Ego worries that all this bad news is making you unfit for human society, and badgers you to try harder to be ‘nice’ – a conformist, people-pleasing slave to other peoples’ judgments.
The difference between guilt and remorse
Guilt should be distinguished from remorse, which is a feeling state in which we feel sad for another person we may have harmed. This is associated with the desire to make amends. If we are sincerely sorry for the harm we have done and seek to repair the damage we have caused, then we are enabled to forgive ourselves and move on.
The feeling state the comes with guilt is not an emotion, but anxiety. Guilt never allows us to move on; it is damnatory and unforgiving. And blocks us from doing the genuine good we might otherwise do.
The origin of ‘guilt’
Earlier societies did not recognise a psychological state known as ‘guilt’. For them ‘guilt’ was simply another word for ‘debt’ (as in the Old English word: ‘gyltig’). It simply meant that one person had harmed another and was unable to put things right. For example, one person stole another person’s property but was too poor to pay it back – therefore he was ‘guilty’ and subject to the penalties of the community.
As societies developed complex legal systems, the situational inability to redress a wrong turned into an internal fault for which the individual was guilty under law. In this way judgments about one’s actions turned into judgments on the self. The ‘thief’, for example, became a criminal person.
The faulty logic behind guilt.
The mistakes and ‘bad’ actions you committed in the past were based on the knowledge you possessed at the time you committed them, no matter how misguided. For example: you shop-lifted, knowing you couldn’t afford something but you ‘had’ to have the item anyway. You might have let greed get the better of you, or maybe you weren’t mature enough to understand why theft is harmful to the community (and, indirectly, to yourself).
Therefore your past mistakes were based on inadequate knowledge (you thought it was ok to steal, or that you wouldn’t get caught, or that it wouldn’t matter if you did get caught). Your predictions turned out to be wrong, although you didn’t realise that at the time.
Your present self-judgments are based on a false premise: your present self blames your past self even though your past self did not possess the experience and knowledge your present self now has.
Letting go of guilt
You can release guilt when you see though the mistaken logic of the Internal Critic.
- Doing bad things doesn’t make you a bad person
- The bad things you have done in the past came from poor judgment.
- Guilt is based to retro-active damnation as the present self (with the Internal Critic) sits in judgment on the younger self.
- Becoming a good person results from the good you do now, rather than mourning the actions you took in the past.
When you have accepted and internalised this way of thinking about guilty you can then work on defusing thoughts that emanate from the Internal Critic. While getting on with doing the good things you can do for others, and for your community. As you do that your self-judgments can change from self-damnation to realistic self-acceptance.