Most dictionaries define guilt as the negative feeling of self-condemnation, resulting from a violation of one's moral code. Although true, this is a rather simplistic explanation.
Forty years ago, cigarette smoking rarely produced feelings of guilt. Quite the contrary; it was considered fashionable and in vogue by many. Yet today, that same smoker is likely to be filled with guilt. Has the moral code changed? Of course, not.
What has changed is that today there is an overwhelming evidence of the devastating effects of tobacco, which was absent earlier. The guilt therefore comes from our understanding that it is harmful and therefore wrong to continue this destructive behaviour. No moral code has been broken.
Overeating when we are young and slim does not violate our moral beliefs and does not produce guilt, but all that changes as the excess pounds accumulate. Our morals remain unchanged.
Forty years ago, cigarette smoking rarely produced feelings of guilt
How it begins
The onset of guilt is more often related to a transgression of our powerful sense of right and wrong. Although this can change as new knowledge appears, much is deeply rooted and firmly established in early childhood. This is unique to one's upbringing and culture. What is correct and acceptable in one culture, may be completely harmful or wrong in another.
There are times we should welcome guilt, it can be beneficial. This occurs when our conscious mind and subsequent feelings try to protect us from our destructive behaviours such as over-working, under-exercising, stealing or lying.
Guilt can move us to be more careful, better balanced, more caring, thoughtful and understanding. It is a nagging reminder that we need to change a behaviour that is not serving us well. We should welcome guilt on these occasions.
Destructive guilt occurs when this negative feeling is out of proportion to the situation or the occurrence which caused it. This can lead to loss of self confidence and self esteem. Relationships are frequently damaged or destroyed by guilt. The result is a dramatic increase in stress; the most destructive state in which a human can exist.
Guilt can move us to be more careful, better balanced, more caring, thoughtful and understanding
How to resolve guilt
Right the wrong
This is the simplest and most effective method and should be done when the feeling of remorse first appears. The longer we wait, the more the guilt will drain our physical and emotional energy and prevent us from righting the wrong.
Accept responsibility for what you have done. Then, repay the debt, return the property, apologise for your hurtful words and ask for forgiveness. If you cannot locate the person you offended or s/he is no more, apologise to a surrogate on that person's behalf or write a letter admitting your mistake and ask for forgiveness.
Then, move on. Let it go. Do not keep apologising every time you encounter the person or the same situation. The past is the past, let it go.
Accept responsibility for what you have done
Eliminate self punishment
Self deprecating names and labels serve no positive purpose: never think or say them. “I should have … Why didn't I…. I'm a really bad person for doing that ….” Labels like these worsen the feelings of self-condemnation and seldom, if ever, lead to a positive change in behaviour.
In almost all cases, the person committing the transgression feels far worse than the recipient. No matter how hard you try, you can never suffer enough guilt or feel miserable enough to change the tiniest detail of something that has occurred in the past. You can, however, make reconciliation and decide never to repeat the behaviour [And stick to that decision].
Stop looking for reasons to feel guilty
Examine the occurrence that produced the guilt. What exactly do I feel bad about? Was it entirely my fault? Were others involved? Was I misinformed? Did I have all the facts and information? If not, would my actions have been any different?
The intention here is not to justify your actions but to realise that there are always complicating issues. No one is perfect. Ask yourself, what did I learn? Unless you learn from the situation, the guilt will return because the behaviour that caused it will also return.
In almost all cases, the person committing the transgression feels far worse than the recipient
Look at the big picture
How important in the big picture of your life is the occurrence that led to the guilt? How will you feel about what happened six months or a year from now? Guilt feelings are almost always out of proportion to the event which caused them.
We all have issues to work through. Some require more effort than others. Our goal is to always stay centred and balanced.
Ask for forgiveness
Ask forgiveness not only from the one you offended but more importantly from whatever God, spirit, intelligence or universal force you believe permeates the universe and controls everything; even your guilt.
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