Guilt is often thought of as a transient emotion that arises as a result of some definable event or other within which we made an error; generally at the emotional cost of another, or perhaps to the detriment of the environment. It is even (and perhaps more frequently) extended to the self, thanks to habits and tendencies deemed destructive by society, and especially close peers.
Guilt is a little more complex than this though; it has a much larger remit in terms of influence on us and although many live with an undercurrent of guilt on a personal level, it is in some ways a collective emotion. This is played upon in big way by those who wish to utilise it for control or financial entrapment.
Your guilt can and will be used against you
This can be evidenced when considering cancer charities, for example, or vaccinations. The implication in the relentless campaigns for us to comply is this:
In the first example, we should be doing something to contribute to a major problem, albeit one in which the majority do not understand the cause or look to the corporate entities pulling the strings of our guilt as actually having some responsibility for the situation. We’re too busy being pulled from pillar to post by pictures of sad looking children with bald heads, which trigger our empathy enough to get us running marathons or throwing money at an inherently hopeless cause.
In the case of the latter example, a heady combination of fear, guilt and conditioning are delivered in a profitable package; the message is that if you don’t follow the pharma-appointed status quo, your child may become a victim of some disease or other and you’ll never be able to forgive yourself. Unless of course it’s the vaccine itself that causes such a disaster.
The roots of our guilt run deep
Vaccines and charities aside, guilt is something that is not going away in a hurry. So many children (before they are old enough and wise enough to apply reason to situations) are victims of their parents’ projections of not being good enough, not well-behaved enough, not being considerate enough… etc., etc.
Many children internalize the resulting uncomfortable feelings so that they fester and become absorbed into the developing ego, mixed in with a complex web of external conditioning so vast that if and when they finally become aware of it in adulthood, the original cause is almost impossible to pinpoint.
Being unaware of the root cause of their guilt-tinged, self-flagellating thoughts, they identify with this downward-spiraling negativity and come to the general conclusion that they are ‘bad’ people.
Our ‘bad’ habits are fuel for the fire
Let’s take smoking for example. Although it wasn’t always the case, society’s current take on smoking is that it is harmful, so the natural conclusion is that if we care about ourselves at all, we have reason to feel guilty about such self-abuse. Guilt is of course just another judgment against the self. Might it be wiser then, to objectify the situation?
If you were to look at the results of your smoking on your health and your failures to stop the ‘dirty habit’, and you find that there is a negative impact, what use is it to tell yourself what a hopeless person you are? The chances are you’re going to feel such a dip in mood that you light up instantly and intensify your guilt. I’m not saying you should throw caution to the wind and embrace all of your habits, especially if they don’t make you feel good, but the question is, what is your guilt telling you?
We need to take a deeper look at our emotions and their origin, as with almost every other devaluing emotion in life. If you feel guilty, there is a reason for it. Discovering that reason is imperative if you really want change. Looking at it objectively, you are more likely to observe the results of your actions without harsh judgment and make an informed decision about next steps. Therefore, why not embrace your guilty feelings as your teachers instead?
Don’t let transmuted guilt be an excuse for stagnation
For example, if you feel guilty because deep down you know that you are harming yourself, then it might not be wise to launch yourself fully into embracing the feeling; of course, if you start to release guilt this is positive, but not if you take it so far that its lessons are lost on you and you use your newfound lack of guilt as an excuse to stagnate in unhelpful situations or habits. The key is, as always, balance.
When dealing with others, empathy and compassion can translate into guilt very easily. It’s noble to be able to feel into the situations and emotions of others; this is precisely what keeps the world hoping and motivated toward positive change. But we can take empathy too far.
When the experiences of others start to impinge on your own emotional state so much that you dislike yourself for not doing ‘enough’ to help, nobody is benefiting. We can’t save everyone so we need to pick our battles in life; there are too many stories floating around of burnt out, depressed activists.
Empathise, but not at your own expense
Sure, some people need to take charge and give their all to bring about change, but those people need to be able to manage their emotional states very carefully or their contribution can even be nullified. Depression, fear and anger help nobody; I know this because I’ve been there.
On a collective level, most of us feel some drive to discover our ‘purpose’ in life, to contribute to a greater good. Yet it does seem that guilt can be one of the more negative of the motivators in this. Thoughts like “I’m not doing enough on the planet, I need to justify my existence” are totally unhelpful. Nobody needs to justify their existence; we were all created from the same source and if we want to help each other out because we generally care, that’s fantastic.
On the other hand, if that is to the detriment of your own mental health because you find yourself compromising endlessly to serve a guilt-based existence prescribed by the assumptions of your culture, or even your personal relationships, you’re going to hit an emotional dead-end.
If you do something based on the feeling that you ‘should’, or you feel guilty for not doing something, your relationships will suffer. Why should you always put others first? Don’t you count? Reframing guilt, processing it, and using it as merely an indicator of what needs to change is far healthier.