What guilt is:
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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.
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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