If we view guilt as simply a natural part of our day-to-day experience, rather than shaming ourselves for feeling it or trying to fight it off, we can diminish the suffering it tends to cause.

By Christopher R. Edgar

Humans have a seemingly endless capacity to feel guilty.  We can attack ourselves for the stupid, wrong or inappropriate things we think we've done, again and again.  Although many of the events we feel guilty about occurred long ago, from the sensations we feel when we dwell on them, you'd think they happened just yesterday.  We can still feel the ugly heat and tension in our bodies when our minds dredge up those events, and we can still cringe and bury our faces in our hands.

We often have mixed feelings about whether guilt is serving us.  On one hand, guilt is obviously unpleasant and distracting to experience.  On the other, we have the nagging sense that guilt plays an important role in our lives.  Isn't guilt the feeling we get when our consciences punish us for the immoral or inappropriate things we've done?  And if our consciences are disciplining us, isn't that because we deserve it?

I actually question the idea that, when we feel guilty, our consciences are rightfully punishing us for the bad things we've done.  Instead, I suggest it's best to see feelings of guilt as a routine part of the circadian rhythm—our bodies' daily cycle—much like fatigue and hunger.  If we view guilt as simply a natural part of our day-to-day experience, rather than shaming ourselves for feeling it or trying to fight it off, we can diminish the suffering it tends to cause.

Before I detail the reasons I see guilt this way, I want to examine the notion that guilt is essentially the voice of our consciences condemning us for our sins.  This view of guilt has a strong hold on many of us, and we'll need to loosen its grip before we can explore some novel perspectives on guilt.  To do this, I'll take you through a few observations about the way guilt manifests itself in our lives.  As you read these observations, notice whether they change your perspective on the role of guilt, and whether you begin feeling more freedom from guilt in your life.

The guilt never stops.  It seems you can keep feeling guilty about the same incident indefinitely.  Even ten or twenty years after an event, you can still find yourself reliving the event in your mind, with accompanying discomfort in your body.  Sometimes, you can forget about an old guilt-inducing event for a while, but when something happens that reminds you of the event again, you return to the same old pattern of suffering over it.

But if guilt is your conscience punishing you for doing something wrong, wouldn't you expect your conscience to understand the idea of fair punishment?  Wouldn't you expect it to have a sense of when you've “done your time,” enough is enough, and you don't deserve to suffer anymore?  The fact that you can suffer indefinitely over the same old episode suggests that guilt isn't simply your conscience giving you your just desserts.

If you're continually agonizing over the same past events, I invite you to try this exercise.  Consider how many times you've suffered over the same event.  If you have trouble remembering how often you've relived the incident, start keeping a journal or just marking a piece of paper to record how frequently it comes up.  I think you'll find you've been recalling the event at least once per day, and you'll be disturbed by the possibility that you've been anguishing over it every day since it happened.  Now, ask yourself whether you really deserve this amount of punishment for what you did.  Also, ask yourself whether you would “sentence” someone else who did the same thing to such a massive amount of suffering.

Guilt is stronger at certain times of day.  Another strange aspect of guilt is that we tend to remember more painful events, and the guilt surrounding those events seems more agonizing, at specific times of day.  My own “guiltiest” time of day is between 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning.  If I wake up at this hour, I know I'm in for a tour of the shameful and embarrassing events of my past.  Now that I have this awareness, though, I'm more prepared for the mental onslaught and it doesn't hit me as hard.

Take a look at your own experience.  Is your guilt more painful depending on what hour of the day it is?  If you answer yes, as I think you will, consider a few more questions.  If guilt is really your conscience condemning you for your sins, why would your conscience punish you more severely at particular times of day?  Are you more deserving of punishment early in the morning than you are late at night?  Wouldn't you expect your conscience to keep up a steady level of punishment throughout the day, until you'd “served your sentence”?

You feel guilty even when you haven't done anything wrong.  You may notice that you feel guilty even about events in which you did nothing that could possibly be called immoral.  I used to feel the sensations I associate with guilt when remembering many such incidents.  I would remember a significant other breaking up with me, and feel the tightness in my chest and shoulders that—for me—signal the presence of guilt.  I would feel guilty about making a joke at a social occasion that nobody laughed at.  I would feel guilty about times when I played poorly in a sports game.  And so on.  Although it would be hard to characterize the things I did in these situations as unethical, I was plagued by guilt over them nonetheless.

If guilt is a sign that your conscience is punishing you, why does your conscience discipline you even when you've done nothing wrong?  Why does it attack you when you simply embarrass yourself or make a minor mistake?  These experiences suggest that, when you're being ravaged by guilt, you are not simply suffering for your transgressions.  Something else is going on—guilt is playing a different role in your life.

I've talked about the misconceptions we hold about guilt, but not about what guilt actually is.  Perhaps the fact that our guilt's severity depends on factors like the time of day suggests that guilt isn't simply what we experience when our consciences reprimand us.  But what does that fact say about what guilt really is?  As I said earlier, it suggests to me that guilt, like hunger and fatigue, is a natural, regularly occurring biological process.

In other words, just as you get hungry at around your regular mealtimes, and you get tired at around your regular bedtime, your body has regular times of day when it naturally feels most guilty.  Just as we have mealtimes and bedtimes, we also have “guilt-times.”  The main difference between guilt and other regular physical sensations like hunger and fatigue lies in the way we perceive it.  We take our feelings of guilt as a sign that there's something wrong with us, and we create unpleasant sensations in our bodies by shaming ourselves.

Put differently, when our stomachs growl, we interpret it to mean we need more food.  But we don't view our need for food as proof that we're inadequate.  We don't perceive ourselves as bad people because we happen not to have enough in our stomachs.  But when we start ruminating on painful past events, we do interpret it to mean there's something wrong with us.  Or, perhaps, we spend time and energy defending ourselves against guilt, devising reasons why we aren't so bad after all to try to make the unpleasant sensations go away.  Either way, our interpretation of guilt causes us to suffer, while our interpretation of hunger does not.

I've come to believe we can transform our experience of guilt by treating it more like hunger and fatigue.  The next time you feel guilty, try saying to yourself “oh, it's guilt-time again”—just as you might think “oh, it's time for bed” when your eyelids start feeling heavy.  Try perceiving guilt as a routine bodily function that, regardless of what you do or think, will recur again and again.  Guilt simply arises at certain times of day, and subsides during others.

This practice has changed the way guilt affects me.  Before, when I'd dwell on the ways I felt I'd screwed up in the past, I would feel unwelcome sensations in my body.  My upper back would tense up, and a prickly feeling would creep across my skin.  My perspective on guilt—that guilty feelings proved I was a bad person—was actually causing those physical sensations.  When I changed my perspective, and started to view guilt as a natural biological process, those painful feelings began fading away.

When you simply accept your guilt and allow it to move through you, without shaming or judging yourself, you reduce the suffering it used to create.  This acceptance is key to changing your emotional life for the better.


Copyright © 2007 Christopher R. Edgar.  All rights reserved.

Christopher R. Edgar is a success coach certified in hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming.  Through his coaching business, Purpose Power Coaching, he helps professionals transition to careers aligned with their true callings.  He may be reached at http://www.purposepowercoaching.com.