Some people carry misplaced guilt that causes anxiety and depression. Others may lie to save themselves or falsely place blame on others without any feeling of guilt. How can we understand the psychology of guilt?
Guilt seems to have become a bad word in today’s scenario. We are told to let go of the feeling, to avoid doing things that make us feel guilty and are assured that the feeling is misplaced. Yet, there are certain situations when the absence of guilt portends ill for the future of the individual and the relationships that are being fostered. The presence of guilt requires appropriate responses in order to be dealt with effectively.
Take the case of a parent who reacts inappropriately to an incident and wrongly places the blame on a child. Later, the parent realises the error and feels bad for misunderstanding the situation and erroneously castigating the child. Guilt creeps in and gnaws the adult mind. In this situation the feeling of guilt is rightly placed and is in fact important for the development of trust between parent and child.
A person may falsely implicate an innocent without realising the truth. The guilt that follows this act is a necessary reaction and a sure sign that the conscience is alive and kicking.
Misplaced guilt is a reaction when a person accepts blame for an event that was out of their control. A wife might blame her husband for failing to get a doctor in time to save their child. The distraught father accepts the blame in the moment of grief and drives himself into a state of despair with the thought that the child’s life was in his hands. This acceptance of guilt may happen due to a habit of incorrectly assessing a situation and accepting responsibility beyond one’s scope or it may happen when blame is roundly placed in a traumatic moment. This is the form of guilt that is sought to be dispelled with a consideration of reality.
Families and organisations may foster the importance of placing blame for a problem and this gives rise to the search for a scapegoat. Some people tend to fall in this trap more often than others due to an attitudinal predisposition that prevents objectivity.
The absence of guilt
At times, a profession demands the curtailment of feelings of guilt. A soldier would be unable to function if assailed by feelings about the families of the enemy soldiers. A doctor must continue to work with patients though a few lose their lives despite the best efforts. A parent who does not want to hit a child may inadvertently do so when the child enters a high risk situation. Though there is hurt and pain, the actions are well intentioned.
A person who inflicts pain on others and does so without a thought of the impact of the actions is in a situation of reduced guilt and there is no limit as to how far such a person will go. A great deal of time spent on reflection is necessary to re-awaken a sense of right and wrong. The reality is that until the person is caught and incarcerated, there is little to be done to prevent the actions. Once caught, if the individual is placed with others who follow the same route of using violent means to survive, the behaviour thrives. This is the cycle found in abusive relationships, criminal activity, predatory actions and the like. Isolation is an effective tool that forces the person to think about the past and leads to the rise of guilt.
The management of guilt
When an individual is facing well placed guilt, it is beneficial to be honest with the wronged party to retain the openness of the relationship. For instance, the parent may apologise to the child and rectify the situation. This helps make the situation better. However, the context is important and may act as an impediment to an admission. This means that the individual takes a conscious decision to stay quiet though there is a silent admission of wrong.
Misplaced guilt, on the other hand, can be a source of anguish for a long time. The perspective of a friend or a professional therapist can help overcome the anguish. Over time, acceptance must set in.
The return of guilt after a long absence needs to be closely managed to enable a person’s return to normalcy.
Identifying types of guilt
You are feeling guilty and have not determined how to reduce the weight of the feeling. When you reflect on the event, you feel the pain of your actions. You may be living in the past or facing misplaced guilt. It is useful to take professional help in these cases to help you sort out your feelings and the reality and assess whether you are guilty of wilful wrong.
As children, we may cause immense pain to our loved ones and feel bad about it when we are older. In such a case, we must accept the context of the time and the feelings associated with the age. Inaction and wrong action may be caused by wrongly understanding a situation and it may be too late to do anything about it. When the event is long past and allows for no rectification, it is difficult to make the feeling of loss disappear. An acceptance of personal imperfection in a past moment is a route to release.
The importance of acceptance
Yes, human beings may, thereby being just the opposite of what they would like to be. We all have sins and omissions of the past that force us to review what we have done and correct assumptions of people and events. Guilt forces us to see that though we try to absolve ourselves and appear perfect in our own eyes, we are not what we want to be. It increases our understanding of people and reduces the bigotry that would otherwise blind us. It helps us see the diversity around us and realise the underlying similarity. These events are crucial points of learning and growth and must be treated as such. Acceptance of flaws and situational responses is an important step to acceptance and growth.