The Positive Role Guilt Can Play

Written by: Jorinde Berben
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I feel guilty today, really guilty. One of my dearest friends who lives a bit further away underwent surgery three days ago. It was only last night that I suddenly realised I hadn’t sent her any wishes, or asked how she was doing. In the business of the week it had just slipped my mind, even though in the week leading up to it I had thought about it every day.

Guilt is a tricky emotion to handle. It has a bad rep because when it lingers, when it starts to fester, it can be detrimental to your sense of self worth. Merriam-Webster defines guilt as a ‘feeling of deserving blame for offenses’. When we start accepting blame for our own wrong doings, or constantly blame ourselves and put ourselves down, we get stuck. We find ourselves in an increasingly deeper whole from which it becomes increasingly harder to escape. This kind of guilt can lead to depression, to rage and to severe anxiety.

There are also other and more nuanced interpretations of what guilt entails, so here’s my understanding of it for purposes of clarity:

Guilt is the emotion you feel when you have done or said something, or failed to do or say something, which you feel to be just or good. What you feel when you don’t do ‘the right thing’ whatever that may mean to you.

I can feel it when I snap at my children and hurt them. Or in this case, when I fail to connect to a friend whom I love and want to support through difficult times.

Guilt is a first step in this process. It allows me to feel, sense, that there is something to be made right. It let’s me know that what I did (or failed to do) does not allign with my values, with who I want to be. So guilt is not an invitation to beat yourself up indefinitely. We all make mistakes and we can be forgiven for the ones we make. In fact, guilt is a call to action. This call to action can lead to either or both of two approaches:

  1. We take steps to make right what was done wrong.We apologize, listen to the wronged party, takes steps to rectify the situation where possible. In my case, I’m trying to reach my friend to do just that, to tell her I’m sorry. I want to support her and listen to how this may have affected her (currently the only information I have are the stories in my own head, which often prove wrong.)
  2. We take steps to prevent ourselves from doing (or not doing) the same in the future. I could make sure to write these important days in my calendar next time, even if I have them memorised. I could go to therapy for certain habits which I find hard to break on my own. I could ask other people for help. Etc.

In this way, guilt can – however painful the emotion may be – cause positive changes. It can show you where you’re not playing the part you’re meant to play. It can help you grow into the person you want to be; the person you could be. Afterwards, the emotion can be transformed into another emotion such as regret or grief.

We then give space to our pain, our grief and regret, and thank it for granting us wisdom and more empathy for others.

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