Is Guilt Healthy? How You Can Turn Guilt Into Gilt

Love, Family

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 and talk about any new people who come into our lives.” Guilt is not a noble gesture. Pam, a pretty, outgoing, 16-year-old high school junior agreed to go on a blind date with an 18-year-old college freshman named Roger. “We hit it off beautifully over the phone; we seemed to have a lot in common,” Pam said. “My friend Sandra had set us up.

She had given him my phone number, and we were to double date with Sandra and her boyfriend. Well, to get acquainted before our big date, Roger agreed to meet Sandra and me for a few minutes at a coffee shop after school. Judging by his voice, I thought he would be tall, nice looking and have a great personality. But that’s not who walked in the door of the coffee shop! Roger turned out to be unusually short, about 5-feet tall. He seemed arrogant and his manner made him look ugly, even though he was nice looking. Yes, his size bothered me because he was shorter than I am, but I wouldn’t have cared about his height if he had been as pleasant as he was on the phone. Maybe he felt intimidated, I don’t know. I tried to make the best of it and initiated a conversation with Roger. He was stand-offish. Later I confided to Sandra that I was unsure about Roger, but she insisted I owed it to her to go out with him just once. So I felt guilty about hurting Sandra’s feelings, because she had gone to so much trouble to bring Roger and me together. I couldn’t believe what happened next. Roger called a few days later, sounding very put-upon. He asked me out, saying he thought he owed me a date. I was irate. This young fellow was not my dream date, and he certainly did not owe me anything but a hasty goodbye. I told him he didn’t have any obligation to me, and I ended the conversation.” Pam and Roger may have missed out on a perfectly good friendship because they felt “nobly obligated” to go out with each other to avoid hurting Sandra’s feelings. As a result, Pam and Roger offended each other and didn’t communicate about it. Perhaps this scenario could have had a better outcome if either Pam or Roger had said, “Hey, let’s forget about dating and just be telephone-friends for a while.”

Guilt is not a relationship tool. 

In fact, many times guilt is narcissistic, self- centered and presumptuous!  Moira’s boyfriend Terry broke up with her without giving her a reason.  “I was stunned, so I confronted him, and he said he felt guilty because he didn’t want to marry me,” Moira said.  “I was flabbergasted by his presumption.  We had never talked about marriage, and it certainly wasn’t on my mind.  I am very independent and like my lifestyle.  I’m not sure I’d want to marry anyone.  I thought Terry was self-centered to assume I was hearing wedding bells.  It reminded me of that silly expression that is so true: “If you assume, you are making an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.”  Then Terry added insult to injury by feeling guilty about my presumed unhappiness over not marrying him, even though he never bothered to find out my real feelings about marriage.  I was more angry at his assumptions about me than his breaking up with me.”

Moira and Terry were dealing with an immature form of guilt in which Terry felt overly responsible for Moira’s feelings.  In other words, he wasn’t “relating” with Moira. Instead, he was projecting his beliefs onto her and taking a false responsibility for what he presumed she was feeling.  Terry could have handled this situation better by looking at the facts before making the distorted conjecture that Moira was ready for marriage.  Terry leapt blindly into a guilt reaction; he jumped to conclusions that were not there.  Had he communicated his concerns about marriage, he would not have insulted Moira but simply have opened the topic for discussion.  “Terry was feeling pressures that didn’t exist,” Moira said.  “It’s too bad because I think we could have stayed together a little longer.  Now, we aren’t even friends.”

Let’s try an exercise.
Think of all the many different kinds of guilt and how you can alleviate it.  Here are a few:

Religious beliefs:
Does my religion make me feel guilty about enjoying life?  If so, how can I balance my spiritual life with my worldly life and feel okay?

Sexual guilt:
Do I feel guilty about enjoying sex?  Do I think sex is dirty, evil, or unhealthy?  Do I fear getting caught in the act?  How can I remove these guilt barriers?

Do I feel so guilty about postponing what I have to do daily, that I end up procrastinating even more?  How do I get out of this vicious cycle?

Another exercise in alleviating guilt is to write down everything that makes you feel guilty and what is causing the guilt feelings.  I feel guilty about eating chocolate, which I love.  And the guilt stems from a fear that my teeth will rot and that I will gain weight or my skin will break out in pimples.  So I get rid of the guilt by eating chocolate in moderation.  I allow myself one piece of chocolate a day and maybe two or three pieces over the weekend.  By telling myself it’s okay to eat some chocolate, the guilt goes away.  And you know what?  By getting rid of the guilt, I actually crave the chocolate less.

Turning guilt into gilt is indeed your golden challenge.  The more you can get rid of excess-baggage guilt, the more you will be ready to find your everlasting love.  Always look for the most pragmatic solution to any situation that causes you guilt.  For instance, if you feel guilty about saying no to people, think of the unpleasant consequences of saying yes if you don’t mean it.  Also, try reversing your guilt patterns.  If someone asks you to do a favor, don’t say okay out of guilt.  Stop the guilt feeling right then and there.  You don’t have to feel it.  You can instead respond by saying, “I’d like to help you out, but I’m very busy right now.  Is there someone else who can help you out?”

Guilt is manageable.  You don’t have to go through life letting other people put their guilt on you; don’t give them the satisfaction.  Pity people who have to manipulate that way, but don’t respond to them in kind.  You can empower yourself more by showing love and sensitivity to the “guilt trippers” rather than letting them entrap you with their needs.

A large part of empowering yourself and your partner in a relationship is to open up about that old bugaboo guilt.  Sometimes partners feel guilty when there’s nothing to feel guilty about!  And remember, anything can be negotiated.  Let’s say you feel guilty about not having enough sex with your mate.  Then talk about it and work out a do-able solution.  The time you waste feeling guilty could be spent making spontaneous love!

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Dr. Ava Cadell is an author, clinical sexologist, sex counselor, founder of Loveology University, and president of the American College of Sexologists International. Her mission is to empower people to overcome sexual guilt and shame so they can enjoy the benefits of healthy, sexual relationships.

This article was originally published at Reprinted with permission from the author.