All of us have personal standards, conscious and unconscious, by which we live our lives. These standards (such as honesty, non-violence, tidiness and punctuality) reflect the internal values we learned as children.
Unlike the animal and plant kingdoms, the human species is blessed (or cursed, depending upon how you see it) with free will.
Free will allows us to live our lives the way we choose. Within the context of free will, guilt serves as a safety device to help us monitor our personal standards. When we go beyond one of our standards, we feel guilty.
When we feel guilty, the first thing to do is to look at our standards and ask ourselves if this standard is really ours. Often we retain subconscious standards which used to be ours in childhood and now may need updating. For example, if we feel guilty about not going to church each week, we need to decide if this religious practice is still our standard. If it is, we can then arrange our lives to incorporate church attendance. If it is no longer our standard, however, then guilt as a separating emotion is showing us that it is time to change this standard. Then the guilt will lessen and disappear.
At other times when guilt arises we may look at our original standard, decide to reaffirm it and forgive ourselves for having gone beyond it. For instance, Janet lied to her mother on the telephone, claiming that she could not visit on Mother’s Day due to the illness of her youngest child. As soon as Janet replaced the telephone receiver, guilt descended upon her like a dark cloud and hung around all afternoon. Janet realised her guilt was telling her that she had breached her own honesty standards. She realised she was not comfortable telling lies to her mother or anyone else. She sat down and forgave herself and reaffirmed her commitment to tell the truth in the future. As she did this, her guilt began to disperse.
Meanwhile, Janet’s husband, Joe was also wrestling with his guilt. He found himself hitting his children when he grew impatient with their behaviour. Afterwards, he felt dreadful. His guilt was telling him that he would feel better within himself if he learned new ways of discipline which did not involve violence. When we understand the purpose of guilt, we can thank it for showing us where our standards lie.
Some people carry a huge burden of guilt for years and years as a way of punishing themselves.
When we were children, our parents often punished us for stepping beyond their standards. As adults, some of us still can’t help punishing ourselves for “being naughty” and we use guilt as the weapon to do this.
Remember, when guilt arises over a particular matter, we always have a choice: we can choose not to make changes in our lives and to continue acting in ways we don’t respect. If we do, the price we pay is to continue feeling guilty. Or we can thank this internal alignment system and make the appropriate changes. The pay-off is that the feeling of guilt over this matter will dissolve and disappear.
If, having chosen the second option, we are still feeling guilty, the ultimate antidote for guilt is forgiveness—of ourselves and others. Just as fire cannot survive in water, guilt cannot continue to exist in the presence of forgiveness. Forgiveness is an important healing skill worthy of frequent practice.