By Grant J Everett
When I was about eight, I decided to go over to the neighbour’s house with an older child to play their NES (for those of you under thirty, this stands for Nintendo Entertainment System). Such a choice may sound pretty ordinary…except for the fact that the neighbours weren’t home at the time and we used a rear window instead of their front door. I then proceeded to enjoy Mario for a couple of hours before leaving the same way I got in. We left no sign that we’d even been there.
As soon as the neighbours got back home from their holidays I rushed over, dissolved into tears and wailed a confession about what I’d done. I was inconsolable, as I thought I was in the biggest trouble EVER. My parents would surely disown me and I’d spend the rest of my life as a tattooed preteen in Cobham juvenile detention centre breaking rocks with a toffee hammer.
The neighbour’s mum, who I was holding onto like a hippy latched to a doomed redwood, glared at her kids instead of at me.
“Why can’t you two be more like him?” she demanded.
Guilt is a funny thing, precisely because it isn’t.
Guilt is a mental or emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes — whether accurately or not — that they have compromised their own standards of conduct or violated a moral law and thus feel responsible for that violation. Guilt is closely related to the concept of remorse, often associated with anxiety and is a huge factor in obsessive–compulsive disorder symptoms.
Such feelings may not go away easily, even if they aren’t warranted. Sigmund Freud (apparently Siggy was some cocaine addict who created a thing called psychiatry) described this as the result of a struggle between the ego and the superego, which is also known as parental imprinting. To put it simply, the “ego” is the total sum of your personality and mind, whereas the “superego” will be more than happy to give you a smack of mental guilt if you do something to deserve it. Freud also rejected the idea of God serving the role of a punisher in times of illness or rewarding the worthy in time of wellness. While this concept had the potential to remove a major source of guilt from his patients by reassuring them that having a tough time in life doesn’t mean that God is tormenting them for being horrible people, Freud instead blamed an unconscious force within individuals that would serve to actively contribute to illnesses. In time, Freud came to consider having an unconscious sense of guilt as being the most powerful of all obstacles to recovery.
Psychologist Alice Miller hinged a lot of her research on the belief that many people will suffer from an oppressive feeling of guilt for their entire lives, that they’ll live with an ongoing sense of not having lived up to their parents’ expectations and that no argument an outsider can present can ever overcome these feelings. Dr Les Parrott described this as “the disease of false guilt, for at the root of false guilt is the idea that what you feel must be true.” Philosopher Martin Buber underlined the difference between the Freudian notion of guilt based on internal conflicts and existential guilt, compared to actual harm that is done to others.
The question all these experts are asking is: If you feel guilty, is that enough to actually make you guilty?
Dealing with guilt
Dr. John Grohol is the founder and CEO of Psych Central. These are Doc Grohol’s tips for dealing with guilt. He greatly expands on this topic on his site here, if you’d like to know more.
1. Recognise the kind of guilt you have and its purpose
Healthy guilt serves a purpose by encouraging you to improve your future behaviour towards others by tweaking your moral compass.
2. Make amends or changes sooner rather than later
Healthy guilt tells us we need to do something different in order to repair relationships important to us and prevent similar future damage.
3. Accept you did something wrong, but move on
Warning: you WILL make mistakes in life. Accept it. Don’t torment yourself. Let the past stay in the past.
4. Learn from your behaviours
Albert Einstein famously said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The best possible result you can get from making a mistake is learning how not to make it again.
5. Perfection doesn’t exist in anyone
Don’t fool yourself. You’re human. Stop beating yourself up.