From Guilt to Responsibility

· March 11, 2017

Guilt is a true poison in any person’s life. Its main task is to torment you and invade you with anguish and self-loathing. In the end, it basically isn’t good for anything.

Guilt can be defined as a perception of something that was done, said, thought or felt which is objectionable in light of a certain value system.

Guilt leads to criticism and self-depreciation. In the most critical cases, it feeds suicidal thoughts or actions. Ultimately, one can say that guilt leads people to become enemies of themselves, and that leads to a small hell where the guilty person ends up sacrificing himself.

“As with debt, the integrity of paying it does not leave room for blame.”

-Jacinto Benavente-

sad girl with eyes closed

Types of guilt

With typical guilt there is the transgression of a rule that is considered legitimate. For example, someone who steals something and knows that he has broken social law, and if he is a believer, religious law.

There is also guilt that arises from other transgressions of values ​​or standards that are not well defined. For example, a person who feels he must comply with a certain pattern of success, but fails.

In that case, it has been accepted as a standard or “law”, a term that is not explicitly stated anywhere, but the vast majority seem to follow it exactly.

On the other hand, there are feelings of guilt that arise without having done anything that can be considered blameworthy. The thought the person has, which they consider to be reprehensible, is enough to unleash this guilt.

An example of this is when someone is angry with their mother, they have aggressive thoughts towards her and do not want to see her again. Then, when he or she is calm, they accuse and torment themselves for having let those ideas come to mind.

However, the more complex type of guilt is unconscious. There are feelings and/or thoughts that are experienced, without being fully aware of them. An unconventional sexual desire, or the secret desire of having what others have, for example.

In such cases, the guilt fails to be visible, but continues to act as a hidden force. Later it leads to feelings of anxiety or sadness which are vague and appear to have no reason for existing.

That unconscious guilt is expressed as a search for punishment: we do something wrong to be punished. We arrive late everywhere in order for us to be reproached. We forget how to do an important job so we can be reprimanded.

Responsibility, a complex concept

Guilt is something every person should analyze with sufficient objectivity. The first thing is to not assume that the established system of rules are valid just because.

There are many cases in history where something “normal” and “legal” is completely against the greatest human values. The most extreme case is that of Nazism, that held “racial purity” as a great value, which it is not.

Value systems and standards are not there for us to subject to them passively. Even though they are issued by someone in authority, it is not healthy to follow them exactly if you do not understand its meaning, or have not clearly perceived its reason for being.

woman holding with a tree without leaves

Another decisive factor in assessing guilt is intention. Sometimes wonderful actions are performed with a deplorable intention. Sometimes, however, certain norms are violated for reasons that have a significant degree of validity.

A political campaign can give a house to a poor family which may seem like an act worthy of applause. But we all know that deep down it is an advertising campaign, which has very little to do with their true feelings against poverty.

Instead, someone can decide to disobey a rule that is considered unfair. In Colombia, a mestizo country, much controversy arose recently because of the refusal of a citizen of African descent to be seized by the police.

The unconscious guilt requires more work. The person does not consciously feel guilty about something. But they usually end up “paying the piper” in situations that would not warrant it. Or they have a feeling of constant anxiety or implicit accusations just by the fact they exist.

In all cases, however, it is clearly seen that guilt alone is a completely useless feeling. It only serves for self-punishment and embarrassment.

What frees us from guilt is taking responsibility for the damage caused. when there was actually damage that was caused. This means repairing the damage as much as possible.

When the damage is only imaginary, the responsibility is to make those feelings of guilt conscious by establishing their origin and how they are manifested.

Tormenting yourself because of guilt doesn’t make you a better person. On the contrary, it keeps you from improving. Taking personal responsibility for the real and imaginary damage is the real way to overcome this futile facet of suffering.

Images courtesy of Pete Revonkorpi, Benjamin Lacombe and Huynh Duy