Most people have felt guilty at some point of time in their lives. Guilt is about looking back at past events with remorse - when they realise that they "should" or "could" have acted differently. Sometimes, the feeling of remorse is based on inputs that are given by others, and not by self-realisation - this is when the thoughts that is imposed is that they "should" have acted differently. When this remorse comes from self-realisation, then the feeling is that they "could" have acted differently. At the surface both forms of guilt and remorse appear the same, and upon further thinking, it will become apparent that they are two different things altogether. When it comes from self-realisation and acceptance, inbuilt in guilt and remorse is the concept of "choice." When it is imposed by others, then sometimes, it turns out to be emotional manipulation.
Guilt is useful in the sense that it helps keep us focused and do the best we can. Like fear, guilt also helps in keeping us grounded and acting appropriately as possible. However, the condition is that one can only do what they truly believe to be "good" and useful. In that sense, there is a fine line between innocence and ignorance. (For more on Innocence Vs. Ignorance)
What is Guilt? Synonyms for the word includes culpability, guiltiness, blame, blameworthiness, wrongdoing, wrong, wrongfulness, criminality, unlawfulness, misconduct, delinquency, sin, sinfulness, iniquity, etc. Guilt is a learned social emotion that has major psychological and behavioural components and outcomes. Guilt comes from social and cultural programming, which begins from childhood. It is also built into our legal and social framework so much that it is almost impossible to consider life without it. The legal system uses the word “guilty” or “not guilty.” The meaning of the word is given as “the fact of having committed a specified or implied offence or crime.”
The key is that like with all social emotions and norms, it has to do with the prevailing thinking at any slice in time - for example, what was absolutely alright 100 years ago, is not any more. History is replete with such instances. So, any evaluation or judgment is based on the prevailing social constructs. Remember: there was a point in time that society allowed advertising smoking of cigarettes as fashionable and even medically useful! And documented history as late as 150 years ago, shows that humans were enslaved and traded like commodities and livestock! There are some norms for expected behaviour that have been around for far longer. And in these cases the programming starts in childhood, and is often done by well-meaning people who probably do not know how else to inspire the children and to teach them appropriate behaviours. And since guilt brings about a negative feeling it helps obtain a quicker response - hence may seem more useful for short term results. The long term ill-effects of using such methods are not considered at all. Inputs for guilt come from parents, elders, educational institutions, society and from religious orientations. And feeling guilty makes the person predisposed to being ashamed. Guilt makes a person believe that they are unforgivable; to judge themselves negatively; of being a worthless person.
Guilt is always focused on the past. It is always about something that a person has said/not said or done/not done. In that sense guilt becomes a weapon to emotionally manipulate a person. A person is made to feel guilty as they recall their past actions with regret and remorse. The irrefutable reality is that the past cannot be changed! It is therefore not much use in constantly recollecting the negative aspects of what should or could have been, beyond a point.
Once the lesson has been truly learnt, guilt no longer serves a purpose. The key is learn the lesson well and to forget the pain. Beyond a point, it debilitates, and is really not useful. Like with shame maybe the thought in your mind is that the behaviour of some cannot and ought to be forgotten. History is replete with such instances that humanity MUST NOT REPEAT. Yes, that is true. However, that is rightfully used as a deterrent. However, the important thing is that the lesson be learnt, without having to experience the pain of guilt all the time. Guilt is a negative emotion and hence MUST actively be kept within limits. Guilt comes from mistakes or errors or illegal or immoral acts. When dissected further, guilt comes from mistakes or errors. Whether an act it illegal or immoral is up for debate. And that it is up for debate is because the legality or morality itself is situational and dependent on the social, moral or legal norms being appropriate in the first place. Again, this article does not even remotely aspire to become a treatise on changing the law, or socially accepted norms. This article aims to focus on the individual, and to help the individual gain an understanding of what goes on within them, and to help them be the best that they can be, at all times. To that limited extent, let’s examine guilt as arising out of mistakes or errors. A mistake or an error is an integral part of learning and development of an individual. Each and every one of us has learnt from our own mistakes, and from observing the mistakes of others. As a species, we have learnt from the mistakes of our forebears and continue to do so. So, learning cannot and ought not to be a cause of stress or feeling less than. If a person acts in a certain manner, knowing full well that their actions were unlikely to yield a useful result in the long term, that surely merits their feeling guilty.
So how does one evaluate whether the level of guilt they feel is appropriate or not? If they are feeling overly guilty to the point where they are self-destructing?
The following portion of this article will use the second person "you" as a pointer to you, the reader, to practice some techniques and methods that might help you handle any guilt that you might have in life, appropriately.
First, identify if there is a persistent set of thoughts that keep recurring about past events. About how they could have been handled differently. Whether through self-realisation, or being pointed out by others
Identify the specific set of events that these thoughts are about.
Ask yourself the following questions:
Did I do my best at that time? Was I aware of what I was doing?
Did I intentionally act in an inappropriate manner?
Could I have done something different?
Is the level of skill that I had then, the same that I have today?
Am I looking at the event and the experience objectively? Or am I assuming or presuming ?
Am I overreacting based on others' responses?
It is quite important to ask these questions whenever there is a thinking about guilt. And if you feel that someone else "ought" to be feeling guilty, the questions might be slightly different.
Do I think they could have done better than they did at that time?
Was that other person aware of what they were doing?
Did they intentionally act in an inappropriate manner?
Can I consider it innocence rather than ignorance or wanton behaviour?
Could they have done something different?
Is the level of skill that they had then, the same that they have today? Or was it lesser?
Am I looking at the event and the experience objectively? Or am I assuming or presuming?
Am I overreacting based on others' responses or based on some unrealistic or unjustified expecttions?
This introspection could very well led to a greater understanding of the event and maybe help handle the burden of guilt. And if the guilt is self-imposed, this could help you become liberated. If imposed on by others, it will help gain a better objective understanding of the reality of the situation. Either way, it will bring about greater awareness and help you be better prepared for the future.