What is “Guilt”?
Guilt is an attitude and an emotion. It means that we’re feeling responsible for not meeting expectations, no matter whose they are – or – that we’re having excessive feelings of remorse for deeds both done and not done. Guilt is just as hurtful and damaging to us as any of the other negative thoughts, attitudes and emotions. It can cause us much pain, and can cause us to behave in ways that are potentially harmful to many. Guilt, condemnation and remorse are interwoven, and they all keep us stuck in the past. It is important to remember always that we cannot change the past. We can only learn from it and use it to create change in the here and now. We can never be sure what the future holds. Only now can be affected by our behaviour.
What sorts of things do we do when we feel guilt? Well, there are many self-damaging behaviours from which to choose; here are just a few: going on a shopping spree, an eating, drug-taking or drinking binge, gambling, seeking numerous sexual partners, cutting oneself, attempting suicide, withholding basic needs from oneself like food, water or sleep, exercising to the point of utter exhaustion, etc. And that’s just if we punish self! There are those who take out their guilt on others who cannot defend themselves, like children, the elderly or animals.
As we know, guilt can make us do a lot of things that we wouldn’t normally do. Some people use this to their advantage by laying guilt trips on others to manipulate them into letting them have their own way, that is, to control others. Here’s what a guild trip can sound like: “It’s all your fault”, or “If you don’t do what I ask, you’re mean or selfish or you don’t love me”, “Remember how you hurt me in the past?”, or “A true friend would…” We may then feel that we don’t have that person’s approval and so struggle to regain it, usually by doing anything whatsoever that the person asks of us. We can end up feeling foolish or mean for not saying “no” and then punish ourselves even more.
Sometimes parents take on responsibility, i.e., feel guilty, for their children’s actions so that the child won’t have to suffer the consequences of them. This can help no one: the child fails to learn responsibility and the parent ends up taking on more and more guilt every time the child does something inappropriate – a vicious circle.
Since guilt requires punishment, those who feel guilt often meet negative experiences in the present. This is not because God wants to punish us. It happens because we “expect” some form of punishment and, since the Universal Intelligence responds to our desires, it is our expectation that creates the negative experience.
Survivor’s guilt is a crippling condition that can create much pain, discomfort and negativity. It’s very easy to become addicted to it. Losing loved ones through death caused by accident, illness, childbirth, suicide or euthanasia, murder/acts of terrorism or genocide can create survivor’s guilt for the ones left alive. Remaining healthy when a loved one becomes unwell can also create it, as can growing up as the “normal” child in a family with a special needs child. Also, some believe that since Christ died on the cross for them, they must prove their appreciation by inflicting pain upon themselves. Survivor’s guilt can make us think things like: “I cannot and will not ever succeed.” “Nothing of lasting benefit can or will come from me.” “There cannot/will not be any joy in my life.” “If something good does happen, I cannot/will not celebrate.” “I cannot/will not contribute to a society that allowed this to happen.” Why? To find enjoyment in life could be seen as a betrayal of the loved one, or of the family, or as a failure to punish oneself sufficiently.
Those suffering from survivor’s guilt often tell themselves (and others!) that their deceased loved one was much more worthy to be alive than they; however, being alive is not a question of worthiness; it’s not a reward. Coming into physical form is a part of the entire experience of those souls who choose to do so.
It is important to remember that God does not ever judge, criticize or condemn us. It is also important to remember that the loved one’s experiences were a part of their soul’s path. We cannot walk their path for them. We must allow them the dignity of ownership. We must not use their experiences as an excuse for failing to live well, or for holding onto resentment or for seeking vengeance, or for punishing ourselves, or for expecting others to hold us accountable.
Feeling guilty: What can I do about it?
Wouldn’t it be great to live life free of guilt and shame? Is that even possible? Yes! The first step toward living a guilt-free life is to identify the exact cause of our guilt. Was it something we did or did not do, or something we said or did not say?
Find the source of guilt as follows:
Get centred and in a state of listening. Ask for assistance from the Universal Intelligence. From that centred space, think of someone we think we’ve hurt – could be a person (even self), could be our guide, or could be God. Ask our guide to give us some understanding about our behaviour and our choices, that is, why we did what we did. Understanding our actions should enable the release of guilt and shame.
What can happen when we do this? The pain can stop, sometimes immediately.
How often should this be done? Whenever we’ve failed or harmed someone, before guilt, shame and despair set in; before the need for self-punishment becomes irresistible.
Understanding why we feel guilt can enable us to come to terms with our so-called failures. If we really did cause harm to someone or something, then we need to acknowledge our role in the experience and do what we can to make amends. Sometimes apologizing is sufficient, but we should also be prepared to provide restorative justice.
The final step toward living our life free of guilt is to develop the habit of admitting when we have made a mistake and making amends before we start to feel that we’re “bad”.
Sometimes we might apologize to someone who chooses not to forgive us. What then? Does that mean we should hold onto guilt? No! Choosing whether to forgive us or not is up to them, just as choosing whether to forgive ourselves is up to us.
Sometimes we feel guilty even though we weren’t responsible for something that happened (happens all the time!). In that case, we need to find out or figure out who really was responsible and then let the experience go. Grieving and forgiveness are critical if we are to find our true selves and our true life path.
Q: How can I get past the guilt for causing a motor vehicle accident that took someone’s life? In the hours before the accident, my thoughts kept telling me to slow down a bit – to linger over breakfast (I didn’t because I was in a hurry to be finished), then to have a nice long bath instead of a shower (I didn’t because I just didn’t feel like waiting for the tub to fill), and so on and on. Instead, I got ready, got into my vehicle and headed out. As I was making a turn, a cyclist slammed into my vehicle. She was seriously injured and died on the way to hospital. I blame myself, because if I hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have happened. My fear is that God will see me as a murderer and condemn me to hell.
A: Instead of just one answer to this very difficult question, here are some questions:
Are you sure that you weren’t being used as an instrument to help the cyclist along her soul’s journey?
Are you sure that your inner voice wasn’t just letting you know that something out of the ordinary was going to happen?
Do you know what you are to learn from this experience?
Do you know what was required for the cyclist’s life experience?
Do you know what was required for the cyclist’s family’s experience?
Do you think that God didn’t know the likelihood of your responding to your inner voice?
Do you think that God didn’t know what was going to happen?
Are you sure that the cyclist did not intend to commit suicide? (How can we ever be sure of what another person is thinking? Just because the cyclist’s family members may say that the person loved life and would never abandon them willingly, does not mean that they knew what was in her thoughts.)
Are you sure that the cyclist didn’t receive similar warnings from her inner voice? Do you think that God didn’t know the likelihood of her responding to it?
Given all these unknowns, holding onto guilt can almost seem like an ego trip. It wasn’t all your fault. Yes, you played a role in the experience, but so did the cyclist and so did God. If this experience has helped you to be more aware of the importance of paying attention to your inner voice, then God’s purpose for you has been furthered. Perhaps the most important thing to do to get past the guilt is to forgive – not only yourself, but the cyclist and God.