Why would anyone write that guilt is good? Why in the face of so many opposing view points, such as, enjoy the guilty pleasures, don’t feel guilty – just do it, would I advocate guilt is good? Perhaps, at least a little guilt is OK.
There are stacks of books on this topic and I would like to just suspend all the noise and tumult over this subject and distill it into a few sentences.
First off, if guilt is bad, why do we have it? Is it some left over ancient predecessor instinct that should be shelved along with a good sense of smell and ears that hear ultrasonic frequencies?
We get mixed messages in our culture about feelings. We are supposed to be in touch with our feelings, ignore our feelings as they lead us astray, be more sensitive, toughen up, don’t be so sensitive, work through (or past) our feelings. This kind of information confuses a person because it is hopelessly grounded in whatever theory the author is studying and writing about. Since it is contradictory we are disposed at any moment to adopt any theory that suits us for any given moment.
What if I said that is all nonsense and here’s why. Humans aren’t alone in possessing feelings. We may be able to rationalize or contextualize our feelings in differing ways but there are limits or consequences if we ignore them. In time of danger our feelings may help us escape or perform acts of courage. Guilt is a different feeling than fear, romance or emotional hurt.
What are the useful functions of guilt? Guilt may allow us an opportunity to avoid doing something we may later regret. Guilt can also be an early warning signal so as to help us avoid doing something potentially harmful or invoke us to act upon information we receive. The act of taking something from someone which we didn’t earn may give us a feeling of guilt. Driving a car at reckless speeds thereby endangering the safety of others may give us a sense of guilt. Too often in that case it occurs after the fact. We may also feel guilt in not doing something that should be done. Sometimes, if we are married or in a close relationship, we may be reminded of our lack of performing an expected activity. Everyone has heard of the ‘honey do list’, and there may be more than guilt invoked when that list is ignored.
Our parents may use a form of guilt or even shame to control our behavior. Some organizations, religious, military or even political can use this as leverage in untoward and often extreme measures to achieve conformance. Even an entire culture sets rules that are there to manifest guilt or shame to anyone that crosses barriers that aren’t necessarily well-defined.
Most of us have witnessed guilt used in ways that aren’t beneficial and may just be manipulation techniques. As a child growing up you may have been reminded to eat all of your food because there are starving children somewhere else in the world. Somehow eating your Broccoli saved lives unimaginable in a third world country. You may be reminded to call or write more often by a parent… and perhaps you should…
So, guilt may not always serve a useful or beneficial function for an individual however someone who ignores feelings of guilt often times may miss an opportunity for self correction or worse, many years hence suffer consequences far more severe than a little momentary guilt.
If you are someone who goes around and finds them self feeling guilty for all sorts of real and perhaps imaginary reasons, then maybe you haven’t created a balance of these feelings in your life. A quick check of whether you are taking on a burden of unnecessary guilt is some of the following:
A condition or set of circumstances under the control or initiated by someone else. This means no matter what your actions the condition which create the guilt is out of your immediate control. Remember, you aren’t responsible for the thoughts, feelings or actions of others. You can only be responsible for your own.
Another point of reference in having guilty feelings which should be dismissed are events that have occurred in the distant past and you no longer are able to alter the outcome. Past recollections of an event often evoke feelings of guilt but they are no longer within your power to change. In many situations this might not have been an event or activity you had control of in the first place. An example for some people is when a catastrophic event occurs which injures or causes the death of one or more people. If you were not the cause of the event such as setting a fire, deliberately firing a weapon or driving a vehicle in a reckless manner, then you should not feel guilty.
You may be reminded occasionally by your own conscience or someone else with reasonable judgment, through a feeling of guilt. Use that to correct behavior but not apply it as a weight around your neck.
Remember, guilt is good when applied in balanced measure.