Guilt is a feeling of ‘doing wrong’ which is associated with a particular action. This particular ‘wrong’ action has been judged negatively by ourselves and/or by others around us which form a part of the group we belong to. The actions that make us feel guilty go against our beliefs or others’ beliefs. Therefore, guilt is relative and has to do with the consequences of forsaking those beliefs. This blog will explore some aspects and types of guilt that we may experience.
Guilt may serve a very important role in stopping us from repeating something ‘wrong’. Shared beliefs amongst people keep communities and cultures alive and integrated over generations. Cultural norms reduce the risk of random aggressive behaviour among members of our community, and this is further emphasized by fear of being punished. The feeling of belonging to a community supports our sense of self to live, and so if we do something against the community’s values, we risk losing some of that support and belonging. In reality, we’re all different human beings with unique personalities, and being somehow different from our community can make us feel wrong or guilty. Funnily enough, difference is essential for development. So on the side of differentiating from our community, we can experience freedom and curiosity to explore and be creative in our lives, and on the other hand, to feel supported and as though we belong, we need some common ground with the rest of our community. To balance this belonging and freedom is no easy task.
A dilemma arises when our beliefs do not match the beliefs of the ones we belong to, or when a belief we have is conflicting with our needs. For example, the belief of going to church versus the need to be safe and cautious during a pandemic.
When we choose our needs or beliefs over the other’s needs or beliefs, we pay the price in guilt. This is what has sometimes been referred to as ‘The economy of guilt.’
We cannot always choose to act on our needs or beliefs, just like we cannot always choose to act on others’ needs or beliefs. It is our tedious task of free will that requires us to negotiate our choices, to observe our total wellbeing within our context.
Sometimes we can be manipulated into feeling guilty so that we don’t follow our needs or wishes, to be obedient. This can come from anyone – our partners, parents, friends, colleagues etc. If this keeps happening to us over time, we may start to grow a certain resentment out of feeling controlled. This is why it is essential to have a balance of both belonging and a sense of being different . To maintain healthy boundaries between us and others means being able to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ adequately to our context, without repeatedly saying yes to others and no to ourselves.
There is such a thing called ‘existential guilt’, which may be explained as an unsupported intention to connect with the other, as seen within depressive experiences and anxiety about death. Existential guilt is when we are not supported enough to use our will-power and reach our own unique potential (Breitbart, 2017). This is something we all face at some point, as we feel like we did not do or live as much as we would have idealised.
If you have any questions or wish to reach out for help, please do not hesitate to contact Willingness Team for help.
Amber Tabone practices Gestalt Psychotherapy with individuals and couples at Willingness. While currently reading for a Master’s in Psychotherapy, she has developed an interest in working with relationships, gender, and sexuality thanks to her experience with families and domestic violence issues.
William Breitbart, M.D. (2017). Palliat Support Care. 2017 Oct; 15(5): 509–512. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5597483/#:~:text=Existential%20guilt%20arises%20when%20one,lives%20up%20to%20one’s%20potential).