Though I’m not sure exactly HOW familiar you are with guilt, I imagine it to be a fair assumption that you—like most people—have encountered guilt at one time or another. Guilt is the feeling we have when our behavior doesn’t align well with our internal value systems. This is most commonly expressed in the form of anger at one’s self; it’s the feeling we have when we know that somehow, somewhere in our actions, some violation of what we know to be the right thing, has been breached. Now, as far as guilt itself is concerned as an emotion, it’s been given a bad wrap—especially in the context of a modern civilization that seems adamant on eradicating any sort of value system that requires the kind of guilt often associated with religious sects. As science becomes the new religion, and empirical knowledge becomes the new paradigm, guilt has been labeled a kind of superfluous emotion—an emotion belonging solely to the religious. And so, in hoping to distance themselves from the expectation of a God they can’t see, modern culture has increasingly sought ways to rid themselves of the guilt factor as well.
But, most people are really missing the point entirely. The real question isn’t whether or not guilt is a facet of religion or not—as I don’t think it takes a genius to understand that even atheists experience guilt. The real question is whether or not guilt itself is a helpful emotion, whether or not it is valid, whether it helps us to achieve happier lives. Within all of us is a value system—however different—that we can violate, and therefore, elicit the feeling of guilt. That being said, additionally, the next two questions are simple these:
A.) What value have I violated?
Understanding exactly WHY you feel guilty is an important way to understand your own internal value system. A lot of people tend to ignore the root causes of guilt, and in the subsequent anger that unfolds, they create more destruction as a means to “blot out” guilt with a bunch of actions meant to convince themselves that they “don’t care”. This can be dangerous, as most often our guilt is tied up with relationships that are dear to us. In this way, such a mishandling of guilt may actually put our most cherished relationships at risk. Also, by understanding our internal value systems, we create the possibility of correcting our future behavior, and therefore, increase our chances of happiness in the strength of our resolve and the relationships we keep.
B.) Is this guilt reasonable?
It’s true: not all guilt is completely warranted. So, it’s important to ask yourself: Is the guilt I’m feeling a reasonable reaction for the situation? Is forgetting to wish your friend a happy birthday really worth going out and spending money you can’t afford on a ridiculously late present? Is it worth labeling yourself as a terrible friend and succumbing to a night of binge drinking and self loathing? Probably not. You have to match the punishment to the crime. Punishing yourself beyond the true damage of the crime can set a dangerous precedent. Renowned psychologist Aaron Beck once said that “depression is anger turned inward”. Taking on unnecessary guilt can turn anger at oneself into a vicious cycle that could, in time, provoke depression in some people.
YOLO AND THE COUNTER CULTURE OF GUILT
These days, generational slogans like YOLO (You Only Live Once) have become prominent social devices meant to rid ourselves of guilt, and simply act impulsively. By such logic, people mean to act out, regardless of what ill effects they or others might experience. I say: a little guilt is okay. We need guilt to a degree. Guilt is what preserves our humanity in a way; without it, how might we distinguish our behavior from that of wild animals? The most frustrating thing is that, such guilt-free subcultures like YOLO, have been abused, being used as an excuse to act irresponsibly in the name of selfishness and a disregard of others. These philosophies often promote themselves as a mere “relaxation” of the expectations and sense of right and wrong. An absence of guilt indicates an absence of an internal value system. So, when people purport that we should ignore guilt and let go of it, this also requires that we let go of our own value systems.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Guilt sucks. We all know this. It’s not fun when we realize that we’ve violated some principal we know to be true and good within our hearts. It’s a terrible feeling to admit that we’ve been a bad friend, girlfriend, employee, or grandson. We don’t like to see ourselves as the “bad guy”—it hurts. Yet, trying to convince ourselves that guilt has no place in our lives is a complete folly. A little guilt is okay; it helps us to recalibrate our behavior and orient ourselves so that we may walk on a path that reflects our very best qualities and the most powerful aspect of our humanity. A little guilts helps us to let go of selfishness, to think of others, and to understand that our wants are not necessarily the most important issue at any given time. But perhaps, most importantly, guilt helps us understand the context of our actions and our short comings, so that we may build stronger relationships and understand the costs and meaning of dedication to those internal values which help us to reach our full potential.