The Origins of Guilt

Guilt can be seen as the price we pay when our behavior violates some standard or belief we hold. As long as our behavior is violating this standard, guilt will follow.

  • Very often, our standards are not very clear in our consciousness and we question our behavior only in response to feelings of guilt and shame. Therefore, we might not be aware that our standards are unrealistically high. If we consciously observed our behavior or put ourselves into the role of a compassionate friend we might not apply the same high standards. We may come from a family that encouraged us to feel overly responsible through blaming or finding fault whenever things went wrong. Super-responsibility may have been seen as an asset as we grew up. The down side is that throughout life, even a trivial infraction noticed by some authority figure (parents, teachers, employers, etc.) instilled in us a sense of failure, guilt, and diminished self-worth. We developed an "Inner Critic" to protect ourselves by forestalling external criticism. Whenever our behavior now violates a certain standard, we sink into a low state and feel guilty and worthless, instead of revising this standard or using our guilt experience for learning and improvement.

  • Another cause of guilt seems to have its origin in the "magical thinking" of early childhood. As infants we learn that when we have a need (for clean diapers, food, etc.), all we have to do is make a sound, and someone comes to fill our need. Therefore, we learn to believe in our own power, growing out of the reality that we are the "center of the universe". This belief continues until our intellectual level (age six to nine) allows us to start understanding other cause and effect relationships in the world. We learn that we are not the cause, and therefore responsible, for everything that happens. But some of us may have kept a certain remnant of magical thinking, like for example "to expect anything good will only bring bad", and vice versa. Even under the best circumstances most of us retain a bit of magical thinking that contributes to a sense of guilt, especially in response to a profound loss. "What did I do to cause this?" "What could I have done to prevent this?" These are reasonable questions for adults to be asking about their effect on the world. Whether or not they torment us and undermine our sense of worth may depend upon the degree of "magical thinking" we retain from our childhood

  • Another cause of guilt is also connected with an "illusion of control". We would rather believe that certain events in our life are a result of our wrongdoing than that they are caused by inevitable circumstances. The price we pay for this belief that we are in control is guilt.

Unconscious Guilt

Unconscious guilt is the most difficult to deal with because we are not directly aware that we feel guilty. We may notice it indirectly when we feel defensive as we talk about something we have done. Projection is another way unconscious guilt can manifest itself. We project when we blame someone else for something that is related to our own action.

Unconscious guilt may lead to destructive behavior such as alcoholism or working until we drop, etc. These behaviors are a way of unconsciously saying, "I am guilty; therefore, I am unworthy and should be punished".

Conquering Guilt

There is no need to suffer from unreasonable or even reasonable guilt. The following tools will help you conquer your guilt:

  1. You first need to be fully aware that you feel guilty and recognize how you might act out unconscious guilt.
  2. Then you need to identify, as clearly as possible, just what it is you believe you feel guilty of.
  3. The next step is to ask yourself if your guilt is logical or not. This gives you a different perspective from which to view your actions. Ask yourself: "With the information and resources I had, did I do the best I could?" These kinds of questions may appear ridiculous with their obvious answer but they help you look at your guilt in a true light. Many times, when we say our guilt out loud or write them down, we can hear or see the illogic of them.
  4. Ask yourself, "what was my intention when I made the decision or action I feel guilty about?"
  5. Examine your standards when they conflict with your behavior. Look back at the behavior you feel guilty about from the perspective of a compassionate, non-judgmental friend. Then see whether you would apply the same standards as before.
  6. It might also be helpful to evaluate whether you may be carrying guilt or shame from your childhood that distorts your perspective now. If your standards seem too high, you need to tell your "Inner Critic" to back off and lower these standards.
  7. If you are afraid to lower your standards of behavior, you need to weigh out the pros and cons by asking yourself in each situation, "What do I stand to gain or lose if I lower them?"
  8. If your standards seem clearly appropriate, you need to acknowledge that your guilt was reasonable. Now you can use your experience for learning and improving your behavior.
  9. Sometimes, the only answer is to ask for forgiveness from a person or from God. This helps you to forgive yourself.
  10. With meditation or engaging in a spiritual activity, you can learn to use the power of presence to create an inner atmosphere of acceptance.

It takes time to resolve guilt. You may have to go through these steps over and over again.