What guilt is:
Guilt is feeling ashamed, whether the humiliation is justified or not. We have all been shamed for something. As far as I know, The Guinness Book of World Records has no knowledge of anyone on this planet having escaped shame so far. And even if our “misdeeds” may seem comical when we look back on their original setting, the self-punishing effects of the guilt can stifle us for years.
Let’s look at Gloria’s experience; it is a good case in point. Gloria is a woman in her 20s who recalls the first time she was sexually shamed, as follows: “I was four years old, and my six-year old playmate Richard took me behind my house and showed me his penis. I didn’t even know what it was, so I just looked at it out of curiosity.
Well, our mothers caught us and all hell broke loose. You would have thought an Immaculate Conception was about to occur. And the funny thing is, Richard and I were being ignored while our parents were running to each other in near hysterics. Even a couple of neighbors came out their doors because of the commotion. I stood there wondering what was wrong with the adults; I’d never before seen them run amok. I began to think that adults were alien creatures. “And the incident was much ado about nothing; I could sense that Richard and I had not done anything as horrible as our parents’ reaction to it. But I was so embarrassed. I felt my face grow hot. Like a snake in the grass, I slithered off to a corner of our yard and began building a tiny house out of rocks.
I squatted there, huddled into myself, muttering something about building a rock house and hiding inside it. "Far away across the yard, I could hear the neighbors trying to calm my mother down. Everyone was talking more rationally, but I didn’t dare look up and face them. This is the first time I can ever remember feeling shame about anything. The incident probably affected me somewhat sexually later on, as far as inhibitions, but not nearly as much as it affected me emotionally. Whenever people around me react unreasonably, my first reaction is to think it’s my fault. To this day, I hate all the hoopla that guilt causes; it’s not necessary.”
The guilt Gloria feels has been put on her and was blown out of proportion. However, Gloria turned her guilt into gilt by realizing, even at age four, that the problem was the adults’ over-reaction to sexual curiosity, not her and Richard. But other forms of guilt can indicate genuine remorse. We can feel remiss in our duty to another person, which is also guilt. I
’d like to give you an illustration of guilt as a “double-edged sword” taken from my own life. I love to travel, yet I feel guilty if I accept a two-week lecture assignment overseas and have to be away from my husband. Usually I invite my husband to come along, but a close relative of his is very ill and he cannot leave to go abroad. So, I would feel equally guilty if he were to travel with me and the relative died while we were away. In this instance, guilt becomes like a take-off on that old expression “damned if you do; damned if you don’t.” I am putting the guilt on myself, but it is based on my love and concern for the people closest to me. Is it necessary for me to feel guilty? Or can I turn guilt into gilt by just making a choice when these travel-situations pop up and trusting that I have made the best decision I can, realizing that I am only human.
Guilt is also control and manipulation. Unfortunately, people “lay guilt trips” sometimes because it simply works. If all else fails, others will often do what we want if they are shamed into it often enough. But that kind of guilt will turn to rust eventually when resentment and rebellion set in.
What guilt is not:
Guilt is not a healthy motivator. How many times have we accepted a date out of guilt? Anita, an educator in her 30s, had dated Daryl three times when she realized she didn’t feel any chemistry with him. “He was a perfectly nice guy and we had a good time with each other,” Anita said, “but I just didn’t feel he was the love of my life. We didn’t click romantically. Yet I continued to date him because I felt guilty about telling him I wasn’t interested.”
I advised Anita to make a clean break of it and let Daryl down gently so that each could move on and find the right person. “When I recognized I was going out with Daryl to avoid feeling guilty about saying ‘no’, I understood I wasn’t being sincere to me or to him. I didn’t owe Daryl a date and I didn't owe him my guilt, which must have seemed like pity. I did owe it to both of us to be honest.”
Anita felt obligated into “mercy dates” as many people call them. She wanted to give the situation with Daryl a chance, but she also felt it had no future. Fortunately, Anita recognized the potentially detrimental consequences of continuing a relationship she didn’t want and the importance of nipping it in the bud. “Once I saw the benefits of cutting it off with Daryl, I felt better too,” Anita said. “I was free to find someone more suitable for me. Daryl was free to find someone who would love him more than I could. And hopefully, we can still remain friends