For starters, guilt is not an emotion, it is a state of being. For the average person it may seem that I am splitting hairs, but for the therapy world, it’s helpful to know the difference. If you are sick, you don’t necessarily need to know that much about your body to describe it to your doctor; however, your doctor better know details about human anatomy and system functions in order to treat you. Emotions generally fall into four categories: joy, anger, sadness and fear. Notice guilt isn’t one of them, nor is shame, the paralyzing cousin of guilt. The common denominator of emotions and most states of being is they are all centered in your brain. Each is a result of thoughts. The thoughts are generally a reaction to an outside stimulus, either in the moment or any amount of time later.
Guilt is a function of our brain when we have done something wrong or something we perceive is wrong. This function helps shape us to move toward the common good rather than just benefitting ourselves. Guilt is imperative for the health of a community. A person with Antisocial Personality Disorder (Sociopath) sees himself as above the law in all respects. He does not feel guilt or remorse for his actions. Without guilt, we have an ‘It’s all about me” attitude. Every person has this attitude some of the time but those with Antisocial Personality Disorder have it in nearly all circumstances. This can be taught or it can be a malfunction of the brain; some people with Antisocial Personality Disorder are a result of their environment, some are a result of DNA and some are a result of a combination of both.
Guilt is often misunderstood. Some see it as bad, but it’s not. No more than the emotions of anger, sadness or fear. These functions of our brain help us live in community in a healthy way through being authentic and connecting with others. When we eliminate any one of them, we damage ourselves and healthy interactions. The movie, Inside Out portrayed this beautifully.
Your first action is to notice your guilt. Ask yourself some questions about it. What did I do that I am feeling guilty? What is the standard by which I am measuring my actions? Does this system make sense – is it in the best interest of both myself and the common good? What if someone else is telling you that you did something wrong, but you don’t see it that way? Find out what that person’s reasoning is. Is it for both the good of you and the common good or is it some arbitrary set of rules that don’t make any sense?
Next week I’ll continue this series with how to process your guilt in a healthy way that leads to restoration.