I think we abuse guilt. It’s overused and it’s often a tool for manipulation.
The way I see it, there are several types of guilt, and all but one are counterproductive.
1. Guilt for making a wrong choice.
When you make a choice that is undeniably wrong, the guilty feeling you experience is the legitimate way that your soul is trying to tell your brain that you need to fix something. This is the proper use of the emotion and is hopefully fruitful in making positive changes in one’s life.
2. Guilt for choices that are bad, but not ideal.
This kind of guilt is mostly self inflicted or socially inflicted as a result of making choices that are neither bad, nor good, but viewed as bad. For instance, when we feel guilty about eating too much and gaining weight. In my experience, this type of guilt is usually counterproductive and causes a person to give up more often then not. We cheat on our diet a couple of times, we feel bad, and then we give up.
3. Discomfort when blamed for something unknown.
A few years ago, I had a classic “You offended me and I’m never going to church again” experience. I was only trying to be friendly with someone new at church and they suddenly stormed out and blamed me. When I apologized, they said I had said something hurtful, but I swear, I can’t think what it could possibly be. To this day, I have no idea. I felt horrible, literally for months, until someone who knew the woman told me that she’s just like that and there was probably no offence at all. But now I’m paranoid and won’t talk to anyone new unless they initiate the conversation. There’s a tiny part of me that says that maybe there’s something offensive about me that could be unleashed at any moment and hurt someone. It’s crazy, I know. Its just another example of when misplaced guilt can be counterproductive.
4. The guilt trip.
When guilt is weaponized and used for manipulation, it rarely works out. I’ve tried it out in as many variations as I can think of, and it usually just makes my victim defensive or depressed. If they didn’t already feel guilty for whatever choice they made, then the guilt just isn’t going to happen. Don’t push it.
The following is a list of things I’ve felt guilty over in the last couple of days. Lets go through and figure out which situations that guilt is really the appropriate emotional response.
-Not making good enough food for my family
-Having the kids in a hot car
-Not getting Jeffrey’s food fast enough when he demands it
-Not getting Evan fed fast enough when Jeffrey is keeping me busy
-Keeping the kids in the shopping cart too long
-Snapping at Jeffrey after a two hour shopping trip when he was acting up the whole time
-Having a dirty house
-Indulging in a ten minute nap at the expense of not getting the laundry folded
-Indulging in a shower when Jeffrey had other plans for me
-Telling Jeffrey to be quiet during Evan’s nap
… it could go on and on and on. How many of these things are really worthy of a guilty emotional response? Probably none. How many of these things are really in need of some kind of positive life change? A few, but they’re not priorities.
I’m actually a fairly confident mom. These guilty feelings are the same voices that all people get in their heads and I understand that they’re misplaced. I try my best not to let them break me down, and I try to ignore them most of the time. But do you see how much damage they could cause?
What if we freed ourselves from overburdening our lives with undue negative emotions? What if we used guilt only when guilt is actually required, and tried for some other, more productive emotion in all the other situations? The end goal is that we learn to make the best choices we can in this life, and if guilt is getting in the way, lets just do something else.