Guilt is the most destructive, paralyzing feeling of all. It’s a horrible burden that crushes people and demolishes their lives. I want to suggest a productive way of addressing guilt and getting from under its weight. Please understand that I’m not talking about a short-term, situational experience. I accidentally stepped on a person’s foot in line for coffee today and I felt bad. But I’m now very much over it. The guilt that I want to address here is the kind that people carry around for a long time. Weeks, months, years.
We all know that guilt is painful. However, if we cling to it for such a protracted period of time, this means it is serving some purpose for us. Nobody would engage in an activity over a significant period of time if that activity didn’t carry significant benefits. If we feel guilty, it means we need to feel this way. Unearthing the benefits guilt brings to our lives will be the first step on the way of healing.
Here are some possibilities:
1. Guilt can offer an illusion of control. If I caused these horrible events, then the world can ultimately be controlled by me in all of its unpredictability.
2. Guilt can offer an excuse for stasis. If things I do have such bad consequences, here is a great excuse to do nothing.
3. Guilt can allow one not to grow. If I’m stuck on this action I feel so guilty about, I will forever remain at the age when I committed it. People who feel guilty about things they did 30 years ago show this same kind of immaturity in every single other context, as well.
4. Guilt can reinforce the image of oneself as a hopelessly rotten, bad individual. There is nothing than the human psyche values more than stability and lack of change. Guilt might be a nifty little mechanism that perpetuates this sweet feeling of personal uselessness and rottenness.
Now, the purpose of the exercise is not to feel even more guilty for being a controlling, infantile individual with no desire to move ahead. Doing so would not change the situation. What would help is identify the roots of the problem. How did I come by the feeling of myself as bad? Why am I afraid of growth? Which responsibilities that the guilt is allowing me to avoid do I fear? Why do I fear them so much?
The important thing to remember is that guilt is destroying you and people around you. There are no healthy purposes it can serve, none whatsoever. Whenever you engage in feeling guilty, you are doing something deeply unhealthy. Now is the time to stop. Lay down this burden and start walking away from it. And this will be the best thing you can do for yourself and everybody else.