[Note: this is a long one! I know I promised shorter articles, but I got so into this topic and couldn't stop writing, haha. If you want a TL; DR version, check out the video below or click here.]
Last week I did something I should feel guilty about. But I don’t.
Why is that? And is it wrong not to feel guilty?
As a fairly rebellious person, a regular rule-breaker, it’s not unusual for me to have experiences after which I “should” feel guilty. But I don’t often experience guilt the way many others seem to. And I think I just figured out why when I read these words by Anthony de Mello:
“When you are guilty,
it is not your sins you hate
These words answer both of the questions I posed above: I don’t feel guilty because I hate my actions, not myself. And, if that's the case, then it's absolutely okay not to feel guilty; in fact, it's an act of self-love. When I do something I shouldn't have, I might feel weighed down for a bit, but then I remind myself that, because I cannot undo it, there’s no point in dwelling on the past. I discourage guilty emotions in myself, and I’ve tried to steer others from them as well. I can recall many occasions where I’ve declared to a guilt-ridden friend, “Guilt is a waste of time.”
And, honestly, I believe that. When you get down to it: guilt is an emotion. It serves as a warning, a guide, sometimes, but it doesn’t change what’s happened or what will happen in the future. Like all emotions, it will transform and shift. Sometimes it will be stronger; other times, almost nonexistent. Like all emotions, it’s internal, abstract, and unreliable. Most importantly, it’s not useful.
If you’ve done something wrong, feeling guilty about it doesn’t do any of the following: take another person’s pain away, undo what’s been done, make you feel better about what you did, or (necessarily) change your future behavior.
Guilt is not necessary for being a good person, and, in fact, it can be detrimental to living a positive, present life. Before diving into how to cope with guilt (and why I believe you should minimize it in the first place), let’s take a look at exactly what guilt is.
WHAT IS GUILT?
According to good ol' Wikipedia, "Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes — accurately or not — that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation." Basically, guilt is feeling bad about yourself for having done something wrong; it’s not about feeling bad about what you've done wrong. (If you've even done anything wrong — so much of our guilt is misdirected or driven by societal pressure.)
As children, we’re taught to feel guilty when we do something “wrong.” Rather than encouraging kids to investigate the feelings and the why behind the “bad” act, adults (and other kids) shame and criticize to prompt guilt and discourage the repetition of socially unacceptable behavior. It sounds like it would make sense: make someone feel guilty and they won't do it again. But we all know it's not that simple.
Guilt is a form of societal pressure. It’s the voice of the external world saying, Fit into the box. Do what everyone else is doing. Behave. Don’t color outside of the lines. Conform. Be good. In clear-cut cases — violent criminals who are a danger to society, for example — labeling someone “guilty” is very useful for the greater good. But what about situations where the lines are blurry, where the good and bad cannot be placed easily into neat little boxes?What benefit does guilt have then? What about situations in which what’s considered “normal” doesn't feel morally right to you?
Guilt might seem like a good concept in theory— you feel bad about something and, as a result, you’re unlikely to do it again. But it’s so much more complex than that. For one, it’s important to consider why you feel bad. Is it really your moral compass pushing you to feel that way? Or is it society’s pressure? Guilt isn't a sign of being a morally good person (even though we often use it to feel like one).
See, when you feel bad about yourself, your goal is to make yourself feel better (anything from insincere apology to self-destructive behavior might temporarily assuage your guilt), which is inherently selfish and rarely results in actually improving how you feel or rectifying a wrong. But when you feel bad about the action— not about yourself — you’re more likely to seek out ways to right a wrong, rather than ways to simply soothe your own ego.
WHY YOU SHOULDN’T FEEL GUILTY
Guilt does not make you a good person.
Guilt (both internal and external) is used to regulate our behavior and make us think we're "good" people, but it's not necessary for actually being a moral, ethically sound person. Contrary to popular belief, you can recognize what you did wrong and change your behavior without feeling guilty (aka, hating yourself) for what you've done.
Some people believe that experiencing guilt is a form of redemption. If you feel bad about yourself for doing it — even if you continue to do it — than you must be a good person, right? Nope! How you feel about yourself is actually irrelevant to how good you actually are as a person. And how "good" you are should be determined by what you believe is good. Goodness is very subjective.
How we feel about ourselves is incredibly important and impacts our lives in a variety of very important ways, but when it comes to actually rectifying mistakes and making choices that will positively influence those around us, your feelings about yourself don’t actually matter. What matters is not how you feel, but what you do.
Guilt doesn't necessarily change your behavior.
In theory, experiencing guilt should mean not making the same mistakes in the future. But, if you think back on your life (or contemplate others' choices), you’ll soon see that guilt isn't a sufficient motivator for change. As Audre Lorde wrote in Sister Outsider:
“Guilt… is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.”
I'm pretty sure Lorde was talking about guilt in a much broader sense here, but her words apply to personal guilt as well and serve as a reminder that guilt alone does not equal change. It might sound crazy, but there are many people who do bad things and continue to do them because they allow their guilt to serve as some sort of reparation for their acts, as if feeling bad about yourself for doing something wrong in some way cancels out the wrongdoing. (It doesn't.)
Also, if you continue to do whatever you did "wrong," you're not only risking the potential consequences of your actions, but if you feel guilty about it, you're also you're denying yourself self-love. A denial of self-love will not make easier on you (or those around you), regardless of whether or not you continue your behavior.
Guilt is a selfish response to the situation.
If you're feeling guilty, you're not in a positive, present mindset. You're not cultivating feelings of self-love and acceptance when you're hating yourself for something you've done. When you're not at peace with who you are — regardless of what you've done wrong — you're actually holding yourself back from recognizing and contributing goodness to the world. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray,
“There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.”
Guilt isn't about doing good or helping the world in any way; it's about making yourself feel better. And experiencing it can sometimes give you a false sense of absolution, potentially to the point where you feel that, so long as you feel guilty, it's okay to continue doing whatever you're doing. Not only are you not doing anyone else any favors with this attitude, but you're making it really hard to love yourself. Without self-love, it's much more difficult to make positive choices.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO INSTEAD
Okay, so you probably get that guilty isn’t the most productive emotion and can, in fact, be very harmful. But what should you do if you’ve done something wrong and feel bad about it (or think you "should" feel bad about it)? Don't worry — I've got you. Here is the five-step plan I've come up with for what to do when you experience guilt.
Step 1: Figure out what’s really going on.
If you’ve done something that feels wrong, the first thing you must do is investigate that wrongdoing and your emotional state with these questions:
- How do you actually feel?
- What’s “wrong” about what you did?
- Why do you think you did it?
- What can / will you do about it?
- Did you learn anything from it?
- What good might come out of it?
- Would you like to do it again?
Looking closely at how you feel and what actually has happened will help you decide what your next step should be and if you should, in fact, be feeling bad about what you've done. Remember: it's okay to hate the action, but it's not okay to hate yourself. Also, it's okay to do something that others might consider "bad" and not think it is wrong. You are your own moral guide.
Pay close attention to your answer to #1 and #7. It's essential that you identify how you feel (and whether or not that feeling is more positive or negative), and it's just as important to know whether or not you would make the same choice in the future. This can help you assess whether what you've done is, in fact, wrong or if, according to your own beliefs, it may actually be something you think is worth experiencing again (despite possible risks).
Step 2: Focus on regret and forgiveness.
Once you've assessed the situation, it's time to focus two very important concepts: regret and forgiveness. Regret is similar to guilt, but while guilt focuses on you (“I’m a bad person for doing that thing”), regret focuses on the action (“That thing I did was bad”). Because regret is focused on hating the action and not on hating yourself, it’s a much better jumping off point for forgiveness. And you absolutely, without a doubt, must forgive yourself.
Even if you've done the most horrible thing imaginable, forgiveness is essential to moving forward with your life and making positive choices in the future. This will not always be easy (and it might, at times, seem selfish), but forgiving yourself should be a top priority. Without forgiveness, you cannot love and accept yourself. And without self-love, you're less likely to add positivity and goodness to the world. You cannot undo what you've done, but you can make positive choices in the future, and the more acceptance and forgiveness you embrace, the easier it will be to move forward with positive, productive decisions.
Step 3: Make amends — if possible and necessary.
Once you’ve determined that you’re experiencing regret (not guilt!) and you’re working toward forgiveness, it’s time to make amends if you feel you need to. The need (or possibility) for making amends will vary greatly on your particular situation, but you should determine whether or not you might need to make amends by considering who may have been hurt by your actions and, if appropriate, apologizing for what you’ve done. Then do what you can to repair any damage you've done.
If reparation and apologies are impossible or would do more harm than good, you can write a letter documenting what you would do or say if you could. Just getting it out on paper (even if you don't ever show it to anyone) will help you move forward. During this stage, it's also very important to work on accepting what cannot be changed. It may be tempting to ruminate on the what-ifs, but dwelling excessively on the past serves no purpose in the present.
Step 4: Look at the big picture of who you are.
You've probably heard the saying "without the night, there would be no stars." You can use the dark moments in your life to see out the bright spots of who you are. Even if you’ve done something you personally believe to be wrong, it’s important to remember that the reason you see this as a bad part of yourself because you have also seen the good.
How you think about yourself impacts to how you act. I’ve made plenty of mistakes (and I’m sure you have too!), but that doesn’t make me a bad person. I have many positive qualities (and you do too!), and it’s important to remember that your character is about so much more than a list of things you’ve done. It does much more good for the world as a whole to focus on what you do well — all the good you’ve contributed and can contribute in the future — than it does to focus on your wrongdoings.
You might have made a mistake — maybe even a really big one! — but focusing on guilt, feeling bad about yourself as a person, keeps your attention on the negative. And what you focus on, you become. If you keep telling yourself, “I’m such a bad person” or “I’m so selfish,” you’re going to start to believe those things. And once you truly believe you’re “bad,” what’s stopping you from doing all of the bad things? It's much better for your own good mental health (and the good of the world) if you strive to find the light within your dark moments.
Step 5: Decide what you want the future to look like.
Now, just because you’ve made amends, forgiven yourself, and directed your attention to your positive qualities doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In this next step, it's up to you to determine how you want the future to look. It’s up to you to decide if you’re going to make similar choices going forward. It might be useful to go back to the questions you answered in Step 1 and consider how you really feel about this situation and what you would like to do in the future.
If you get stuck and you don't know what to do, ask yourself this (and answer it as quickly as possible, without thinking too much): "If I were presented that situation again, right now, what would I do?" Answering that (quickly!) will help you connect with what you really want. (This isn't to say you should always do what you want, but in order to make a well-informed decision, it's helpful to acknowledge what you truly want without judgment.)
Remember: you write your own story. You can take advice from others, you can look around you and see what others are doing, but ultimately you have to decide what you believe is right and what you believe is wrong. In an ideal world, such decisions would be simple, but you're probably well aware that not every choice is easily labeled "good" and "bad."
You get to choose what you want to do, and if you do it with thoughtfulness, understanding, and self-love in mind, you'll make decisions that feel right for you, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Never forget that, though you cannot control the past or undo your mistakes, the future is unwritten and you are the one holding the pen.