The Two Faces of Guilt
We all want positive changes in our lives, but often there is something blocking us. Some blocks are very personal, but there are others which are almost universal. One of these universal saboteurs I frequently come across in my therapy practice is the feeling of guilt.
Often, we treasure guilt as a guardian to our morality, believing if we let go of it, we will become unscrupulous and prone to all sorts of unethical behavior. But is it really so? More often than not, guilt actually jeopardizes not just our own happiness but of the people who we share our lives with. Below are a few examples.
George has been a lonely man for many years now, ever since his girlfriend cheated on him. But then he met the woman who feels like his soulmate. She returns his affections. But happiness does not last long, as George feels a growing sense of inadequacy trying to live up to such an amazing woman. Even though this is not the case, he feels she ultimately will want “someone better” than him, and gets nervous and fidgety in the relationship. Unable to commit, he says he needs to be free, and they break up.
Paula is a professional woman in her late 30s, who’s working in a company environment she detests. For years now she’s been daydreaming about starting her own business, which would allow her to make better use of her time, talents and aspirations. She has bought books about business startups, been to some networking events in her free time and started a website, but every time she spends more than a little time on planning the launch, she suddenly gets tired or somehow sucked back into her daily routine.
Eveline lives in the house she inherited from her parents, and which she treasures for its family memories. However, she has nasty issues with the neighbors, which make her life very uncomfortable. When she gets an offer to exchange the house for another one, she backs off nervously. Somehow it seems too good to be true.
What is it that keeps these people from reaching new levels of happiness? We might say that George is still hooked to past drama, Paula is fearful of losing her stable income, and Eveline is overly cautious. But beyond all that, on a level deeper still, there is a lurking feeling of not deserving it, of not being worthy of true happiness. In one word: it is guilt.
Guilt is a negative emotion that serves us no good. It is as toxic as anger, hatred or ignorance. Feeling guilty is a bad, usually deeply conditioned habit. But as with any other bad habit, we’ll have a hard time letting it go, until we think there is anything good about it.
Socially, we still think that guilt serves us in some way: after all, what would happen if we stopped installing guilt into our children? Wouldn’t we just all go on stealing, killing and engaging in all sorts of misconduct? Surely, without a sense of guilt, the moral construct of our civilization would collapse — or would it? The answer is: instead of relying on guilt to prevent ourselves from misconduct, we must cultivate the ability to learn from our mistakes.