You know what I don’t understand? Guilt.

I’ve heard the word so much lately.  A lot of people feel guilt this time of year, I guess. It’s appeared on quite a few blogs recently, too.

There are a lot of definitions for guilt relating to the conscience; how it’s a barometer of your personal morals and other such high-falutin’ stuff. I don’t believe it.

An author I’ve never heard of, Isabelle Holland, said “Guilt is the price we pay willingly for doing what we are going to do anyway.

I pretty much agree with that. I don’t think guilt is an authentic emotion. The word is almost used in a “Ooooo, I’m so naughty” kind of way. We do something people generally think is wrong, so we feel some degree of shittyness for doing it. For instance:

  1. I feel so guilty eating this whole chocolate cake by myself in one sitting. But it’s soooooo good.
  2.  I feel guilty for spending so much time at work that I’m going to get the kids amazingly extravagant gifts this Christmas.
  3.  I feel so guilty spending Christmas in St. Tropez with my girlfriend instead of at home in Ottawa with my wife and kids.

What kind of moral compass is that? It’s not. It’s a “people are going to think I’m terrible” sort of compass.

Remorse is an authentic moral compass — when you unthinkingly or unwittingly or even purposely do something which you later bitterly regret. You regret it so much that it eats you up inside and causes you to try anything to make amends.

Guilt  is nothing like that. Guilt, I think,  is all about external judgments, not internal. It’s not you who thinks what you’re doing is wrong, or you wouldn’t be doing it. It’s what you believe other people will think of you doing this thing that makes you feel “guilty”. So you are going outside of yourself to define how to behave rather relying on your internal mechanisms of decision-making.

A good example f this is the phrase to be “guilted into” something. What does that mean? People spend a week with the family over the holidays instead of the 2 hours they’d really like to because they are “guilted into” it. How does this work? I can see two possibilities:

  1. You somehow feel you owe this person something and can’t bring yourself to refuse. If the wife in example #3 asks her husband to spend New Year’s Eve with her when he really wants to go to his hotsie totsie’s house party, he might give in because he figures he owes the little woman a little bit of holiday time with his fun self.  If it’s something like your old mum wanting to spend Christmas with you. You know you’d have more fun without her, but she’s been a good mum and sacrificed a lot for you and has done nothing but love you. And, it would make her happier than anything to see you at Christmas. That’s not being “guilted” into anything, that’s just you, as an unselfish human being, doing something nice for your parent.
  2. If, on the other hand, the parent is a horrible person to whom you owe nothing, but you go anyway, you’re just someone who has a lot of trouble saying “no” and find it convenient to blame your inability to say “no” on the people asking you to do something which you don’t want to do by saying they’re “guilting” you into it. Which means you also have trouble accepting responsibility for your own actions.

So, help me out here. Does guilt mean anything to you? If I’m about to do something I know is wrong, I either don’t do it;  or I do it, but without second-guessing myself or telling myself that “I really shouldn’t be doing this…I feel so guilty.”

Because I don’t think guilt isn’t something you can authentically feel. I think it’s something that you talk yourself into when you start worrying about what other people are going to think about what you’re doing.


23 responses to “Guilt

  1. I did a New Year post about guilt once,

    Basically, I figure my whole life operates on guilt. It’s rarely/never guilt from doing/not doing something for someone else, it’s how I feel about what I do or don’t do everyday. I don’t FEEL like doing anything productive or useful, but I feel guilty if I don’t. I don’t FEEL like going to the shelter or doing my volunteer shifts, but I’d feel guilty if I didn’t. I suppose that kind of falls under your ‘stuff I’d do anyway’ definition, but for me it’s more about committing to something in the first place: why did I take on a ton of volunteer work? What makes me clean the house? I’d feel guilty if I didn’t.

    I guess for me it’s the opposite of peace of mind. If the house is clean I don’t worry someone will stop by and see it, and I don’t feel guilty watching TV because I ‘shouldn’t’ be cleaning instead. It’s that interior nagging that gets me to feed the pets and scrub the toilet, just so I can have peace instead. (Note most days I’m fretting about what I SHOULD be doing, which means I’m often a failure at this tactic.)

    Simplification of my life/commitments does help, because there’s less to feel guilty about. I tend to operate on not letting myself relax at all unless the to do list is empty, so I just feel guilty all the time.

  2. Families – especially dysfunctional ones – are complex things. In your parental example, the mother is either really good or horrible. Real life parents aren’t usually so perfectly good or bad. Even the worst parents generally have some redeeming qualities that kids can cling to. Kids in messed-up families grow up with complicated emotional experience. Opposite feelings, such as love and hate, can co-exist simultaneously. There are many by-products of these emotional contradictions, and one of them is guilt. It’s closely related to shame, and it’s not necessarily about external judgments.

    As for being ‘guilted into something,’ as Heather says, guilt is the emotional currency of many families.

  3. I think guilt is a catchall term for a lot of different things. Sometimes I say I feel guilty for doing–or not doing–certain things that I know are against social norms, or that displease my audience in one way or another. But sometimes, I don’t really feel bad about it at all. Instead, I’m just trying to avoid the disapproval of others, along with whatever negative consequences that disapproval might bring, like gossip, or payback in some form. Entre nous, that’s not really guilt, it’s just plain old hypocrisy, mixed in with a little fear of social sanction.

  4. So I’m supposed to use the word “remorse” then? Most of the things I feel bad about from my past are not things that I knew would be bad and did anyway, but things that I didn’t realize until later were bad after learning more. And I’ve never liked that modern use of “guilted me into it.” That’s just goofy. Mostly I don’t get it because I am someone that can say no.

  5. Heather – But what’s to stop someone in a family like that, to say, “enough”, I’m not dealing in this currency anymore?

    Amy – Good New Year post. Why DO you take on a ton of volunteer work if you really don’t want to do it or don’t have the time to do it? Who would look at you askance if you didn’t volunteer at all? Or clean the house at all? Does your family care if the house is clean or not? If so, let them do it. Who’s making up this to-do list of yours? Yes, there are a certain number of things we need to do in order to maintain a functional life (go to work, pay the bills, buy some groceries, eat, etc.) but often the to-do list is filled with things we think we should do, but don’t really want or need to do. What would happen if you stopped making the lists?

    Zoom – I was speaking in generalities and of course families and relationships in general are not that black and white. But guilt and shame are things imposed on you from outside. As a most basic example we can use body shame. An infant or young child has no shame of casting of its clothes and running naked in public. As we get older, we learn from our parents and societal norms that being naked in public is naughty and that we need to cover up. We learn more body shame as we age and compare ourselves to TV stars and magazine models and get the stink-eye from our husbands or parents when we put on some extra pounds and still have dessert. It’s the same way we learn guilt, I think. Being “guilted into” something is a form of emotional coersion/blackmail. Other people make you feel like you are not a good person if you don’t do what they want and from a lifetime of experience you tend to own that emotion as guilt or shame. The shame and the guilt is not yours though. I would think being able to cast that off would be liberating. I do recognize that it’s not that simple if this is something you’ve learned from day one.

    LesterBee – It’s interesting that you recognize that. I think you’re right that guilt means a whole range of things to different people. Hypocracy? Can you be hypocritical within yourself? I guess it’s possible.

    Geewits – Yes, I think when you recognize that things you did in the past were wrong, that would be remorse. Because you feel badly for having done them, but you also recognize that it wasn’t deliberate. You now know they were wrong because you feel within yourself that they were wrong, not because of some accepted social compass of right and wrong. Guilt, I think is present before and during the thing you believe to be wrong AND that that belief is based not on your own moral compass (or you probably wouldn’t do it), but on something imposed on you externally.

  6. I think guilt is used as a tool for control. The good thing about it is that once you realize that, you’re immune to it. As you say, you should take responsibility for your decisions and do something or not, but after that decision, there is no reason to carry around a sack of guilt. You made your choice, so own it. If you genuinely feel bad bad about it (we all make mistakes), you’ll have the opportunity to choose differently soon enough. So don’t blow it.

  7. Christine is dead-on. It is indeed a tool for control.
    It has been used by religions of all stripes to shame and control their adherents.

    Catholics, for example, everyone is assumed to be guilty of sin and sin has to be admitted and atoned for by doing penance as some sort. It has worked well for the rc church over the centuries and they are a fabulously wealthy institution because of the guilt “card”.

    Wealthy and guilty rc dude: Father, I have sinned. I thought lustfully about my neighbour’s wife
    Priest : You are forgiven my son, provided that you do penance by way of a nice tidy donation to the church.
    Slightly less wealthy, now-forgiven rc dude: Thank-you Father.

    (Oh, and I’m not just picking on rc’s here… most religions have used guilt in one way or another to advance their agendas).

    I have never felt guilt in that way. I have screwed up many, many, many (many) times but, like Christine said, have chosen differently the next time around – and I’ve tried not to blow it!

  8. You write: “Guilt is nothing like that. Guilt, I think, is all about external judgments, not internal. It’s not you who thinks what you’re doing is wrong, or you wouldn’t be doing it. It’s what you believe other people will think of you doing this thing that makes you feel “guilty””

    I think you are confusing guilt with shame. Shame operates externally…it is the conflict created by that perceived “gap” between what we are doing (or want to do) and what “they” think we should be doing. Shame (la vergogna) is Italian.

    Guilt (di shuld), on the other hand, is Jewish. Unlike shame, guilt operates from within in. It is the discomfort felt as a result of the “gap” between what we are doing (or want to do) and what we ourselves feel we should be doing.

    With shame, we feel we failing to live up to the standard set by others. With guilt, we feel we are failing to live up to what we feel our standards should be for ourselves.

    Both have the same crushing, if not crippling, effect, of course, if the sense is over-developed!

    Happy Hunkerkah to you and XUP Jr!

  9. Between guilt, remorse, and shame, I’m not sure which of them play out in my life, and I feel none of them when I say that I’m too lazy to bother figuring out which, in my mind, is which.

    – RG>

  10. Guilt is a social decision properly rendered by a judge and jury.
    Anything else is weak kneed sniveling, trying to please others so you will be liked.
    Other than the 2 times that involved fines and penalties I have seldom if ever experienced guilt.

  11. I think there is genuine guilt, that has nothing to do with what people think about you.

    For example, there are times I’ve done stupid things, and I honestly feel bad about what I’ve done. Even if nobody will ever know about it except me and the fly on the wall.

    But then again, I was raised Catholic. And we were trained to feel guilty about EVERYTHING.

  12. Christine – That’s an excellent point – guilt as a method of controlling others.

    Trashee – You’re right. And, it’s not just organized religions who can use guilt to control people. Your family, coworkers and even friends can also manipulate your emotions with guilt.

    H&B2 – Quite right. You come here day after day reading this blog which I worked my fingers to the bone to create for your enjoyment and what do I get in return? Phffftt – nothing. But don’t worry about me. You just have fun. It’s okay. I don’t mind.

    Daniel – I think guilt and shame are part of the whole package of emotions that are imposed on us by external forces – religion, parents, society. These are not inherent, but learned emotions. How can you explain continuing a behaviour for which you feel guilt? If you truly believe it’s wrong, you wouldn’t do it — unless you know it’s wrong and don’t care. If you feel bad for doing it, yet continue to do it there is a dichotomy there that I think is explainable by saying there are 2 different forces at work. The thing you want to do that you enjoy on a basic level and the “guilt” over it because you have learned that it is not a good thing to do. So, you not only feel bad because you have been taught to feel bad about this behaviour, but you also feel bad because you are enjoying this behaviour which you have been told is bad. The shame may come in over your enjoyment of the behaviour you have been told is bad. (And hey, stop throwing your bicultural weight around, eh!)

    Grouchy – At least you know who you are and from whence your ennui stems.

    Bandobras – Well then you are obviously not RC or Jewish! Did you actually feel guilty for those fines and penalties or just mad at yourself for getting caught doing something stupid?

    Friar – Again, I think when you do something and feel bad about afterwards, that’s remorse. That may very well be an authentic response. Guilt is when you indulge in a behaviour and feel bad about it at the same time, I think. And yes, the Catholics are the supreme masters of guilt — although the Jews might argue that.

  13. I remember in high school a teacher saying that she refused to feel guilty for any of her actions. We were all horrified at this. Many discussions followed and I came to believe then that, as has been mentioned, remorse or shame, was more than likely the real feeling.
    However, it is an easy word to bandy about and is likely used many times without thought to what it actually means to. I think you can BE guilty of an action but FEEL shame for having done it.

  14. Hmmm… I feel guilty all the time. For instance, I should be working right now. I’m getting paid to do it. I know it’s wrong that I’m here and unfair to my employer and coworkers, yet here I am. The guilt comes from a) knowing that others are working hard while I’m screwing off and b)… really more shame for having no self discipline.

    As far as others “guilting” me, ha. Good luck with that.

  15. No I actually recognized my guilt and plead guilty both times. I also tried to stop doing those things and so far so good.
    As for work mates, church or family trying to make me feel guilty it doesn’t work very well as most of them could attest.

  16. Violetsky – Interesting teacher. I think guilt is something you feel while you’re doing the “bad” thing because you know people will think it’s bad, but you’re going to keep doing it anyway. Remorse can only happen afterwards when you really know you’ve done something wrong and are sorry for what you did and have no intention of ever repeating it

    Mayopie – You don’t really feel bad about wasting the company’s time or the fact that your coworkers might be working while you’re goofing around or you wouldn’t be doing it. You know you SHOULD be feeling bad about goofing around and that’s what guilt is. A pretend kind of feeling that doesn’t really affect your behaviour at all. Now, if you felt remorse – you’d be off the blogosphere and back to doing your work and you would henceforth only blog on your own time.

    Bandobras – That’s just because you’re a stubborn old cuss.

  17. I agree with Daniel and Zoom

    In answer to your question “How can you explain continuing a behaviour for which you feel guilt?”

    I’ll ask a question – “How can you continue breathing when told to stop?”

    I don’t feel guilt over things I enjoy doing and could stop. I feel guilt over thoughts. They may have begun as shame (externally imposed) but they are so deeply internalized they’ve turned into guilt.

    I spend such a huge amount of my time grappling with feelings of shame and guilt they’re just a generalized white noise of anxiety now.

    “Anxiety” isn’t an emotion though – so if I have to pick what single emotion I’m feeling it’s guilt.

    To say it isn’t an authentic emotion…well what exactly am I feelingthen…it has nothing to do with what others will think of me while I stand here trying not to breathe too deeply.

  18. Mudmamma – I don’t know what you’re feeling or why, but shame is something imposed on you externally. Like I said to Zoom, shame isn’t a natural state – it’s something you feel because others have made you feel that way. And by that I also mean “others” in that you’ve been indoctrinated to feel that way over time so that it might feel like it’s something coming from within you. I think guilt is the same — a learned emotion. It certainly feels no less real. But I believe human beings are not created to feel negative emotions. I think we are born to feel joy, love, peace, calmness, even sadness — because they are life supporting. They give us energy and motivate us positively in life. They enhance our lives. Negative emotions are imposed on us by conditioning through life traumas, other people, etc.. They drain our life force and our energy and impede our normal function. That’s why I don’t think they’re “authentic” or inherent to human beings. We are originally constructed to live and thrive and move forward. The negativity we absorb along the way does not serve us in that way; it is destructive to life. I don’t know if thinking about these emotions this way is beneficial to you, but it makes me feel stronger to know that I don’t need these emotions – that they’re unnecessary extras I’ve picked up along the road. That doesn’t mean they’re easy to cast off, but they seem to have less impact somehow when relegated to their place as “extras”. Tell me what you think.

  19. I’ve been feeling guilty ever since I read this post on guilt. And that’s because if guilt is not an authentic emotion, I’ve been plagued by inauthenticy for as long as my memory serves me. And if so many hours of my life are consumed with inauthenticity, then I must be an inauthentic human. How can an inauthentic human presume to know how to parent a child? Should inauthentic people even be allowed to breed? How could I have subjected these poor innocent creatures to a life filled with inauthenticity? I mean, really, what kind of person does that.

  20. Julie – Yes it’s cool by me (the link). As I said to Mudmama above, I just believe that we are not created to have negative, life-defeating emotions. Every living creature is designed for growth and reproduction of some sort. In order to accomplish optimum growth the vital life force/energy needs to be strong. Positive energy (emotions) feeds that growth and development. Negative energy drains the vital life force and is contrary to nature. Ergo, negative emotions do not serve us and are therefore not authentic to us as living beings — they are imposed on us from outside forces. Does that make any more sense to you?