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:
- I feel so guilty eating this whole chocolate cake by myself in one sitting. But it’s soooooo good.
- I feel guilty for spending so much time at work that I’m going to get the kids amazingly extravagant gifts this Christmas.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.