Jake stole money from his parents a few years back when he was in high school. He had gotten away with it undetected and although it wasn’t a lot of money, he still feels guilty about what he did.
Rita lived next door to her parents for the first few years of her marriage. She visited them each day and they always offered to baby-sit her two children whenever her and her husband had something to do. When her husband was offered a better job a few states away, Rita and her family packed up and moved. She still feels tremendous guilt for leaving her parents, especially because they had helped each other out so often before the move.
When Johnny was eleven years old, his mother asked him to stop by his grandmother’s house to check on her when he got out of school. Instead of following his mother’s wishes, he decided to go to the park to play ball with a few of his friends. When he arrived home later that evening, he was greeted by an ambulance and the news that his grandmother had passed away immediately after suffering a heart attack. He still carries the guilt from that day with him into adulthood.
DEFINITIONS & KEY THOUGHTS
Guilt is a feeling of deep remorse or regret that is caused by feeling one is responsible for something. It can also bring about feelings of shame if it is based on behavior that one considers to be immoral or disgraceful.
Make note that there is a big difference between feeling guilty and really being guilty. Whether one feels guilty or not, a person is guilty if a moral law has actually been violated. On the other hand, if one feels guilty and a moral law was not broken, this feeling is called false guilt. False guilt is guilt that individuals place on themselves for their regrets, failures to live up to the expectations of themselves or others, etc. Sometimes an individual will displays what appears to be false guilt, but what is actually true guilt that is due to the secret breaking of some moral law.
With false guilt, an individual will often experience obsessive feelings of guilt regarding a specific situation in which they did not actually violate any moral law. These feelings may come from a sense of unworthiness that are rooted in the individual’s childhood as a result of being told that they were worthless or for being blamed or punished for wrongs they didn’t commit.
With true guilt, an individual’s feelings of guilt are often triggered by the conscience. Often such guilt includes a desire to do something about their immoral behavior (i.e., a desire to confess, a request for forgiveness, or restitution in any way possible).
- Pay attention to feelings. Just like physical pain, guilt is a signal that something is wrong.
- Determine the source. Figure out whether the guilt the result of an immoral act or a situation that was out of your control.
- Resolve the feelings. In the case of true guilt, determine what steps must be taken to receive forgiveness or to make restitution. If either cannot happen, then work on figuring out a way of to deal with the guilt. In the case of false guilt, realize that continuing to punish yourself is useless and do your best to move on. Talking about your past may be a good way to begin the healing process and to realize that you are not at fault.
- Move on. Release your guilt. Once a confession, apology, or restitution has been made, don’t continue to beat yourself up. Leave it be. If it helps, do things for other people or practice forgiveness in your own relationships with others. By providing others with encouragement, you will receive the same in turn and that will help to increase your own feelings of self-worth.