Like a baton in a relay race, guilt is handed on from person to person. Each generation receives it and passes it on to the next. Parents, teachers, spouses, businesses, governments, and religions have used it—consciously or not—for behavior modification or punishment. It is such a part of the fabric of our culture that we don’t question its validity.
The Ball and Chain of Guilt
“Guilt is the source of sorrow, the avenging fiend…with whips and stings,” wrote the 17th century dramatist Nicholas Rowe. Rowe’s words are hardly over-dramatized. Guilt is like a ball and chain that weighs us down and keeps us from being who we are.
Guilt is a secondary emotion. That means it’s a feeling that stems from other thoughts or feelings. Guilt comes from thinking that you have done, or want to do, something wrong. These thoughts of guilt infect and suppress your real feelings, such as anger, grief, desire, or happiness.
Typically, we deal with feelings of guilt by denying them. However, denied feelings don’t disappear; they submerge and stay unconscious, continuing to show up in negative patterns of behavior.
But the good news is that guilt is simply a conditioned response—which means we can change it.
Using Guilt to Grow
First, remember that we are here to learn. Our culture has taught us that making mistakes is bad, but mistakes are simply a way of learning and growing, and provide excellent feedback.
Acknowledge the guilt. Become aware of the guilty feelings that overlay your true feelings. Listen to the “you should” and “you shouldn’t” messages in your ear.
Question your guilt. Don’t take it for granted. You were taught to feel guilty for feeling or behaving in a certain way. Are you willing to unlearn this behavior, and to release it? Examine what guilt is costing you and if it offers any positive results in your life.
Recognize the difference between your conscience and guilt. Our conscience provides us with a self-assured sense of right and wrong and is a helpful guide to behavior, while guilt is a form of brainwashing that erodes self-worth and our ability to make good judgments. Those “should” messages are a good indicator of the difference.
Experience the feeling that guilt is sup- pressing. Healing occurs when feelings are acknowledged and experienced. Jackie had been taught as a child that anger was an unacceptable emotion. Feeling angry with her husband, she became aware of the guilt–“I shouldn’t be angry”–that was stopping her from speaking up. With that realization, Jackie’s guilt evaporated. She expressed herself and, for the first time in her life, knew what guilt-free anger felt like: alive, clean, and clear.
Move the guilt out of your body. Identify where in your body you feel guilt; imagine all your guilt gathered there. See it now as if in a balloon, floating out of your body, into space. Or, write down all the reasons you “should” feel guilty—all those things you did or failed to do. Then burn the list.
Living your life forever feeling bad about yourself benefits nobody, least of all you. And the world is robbed of the fullness of who you are.