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Thursday, September 27, 2007

What Guilt is Good For

You cheated on your partner. You missed your child's volleyball game. You lied. You used someone. You stole something material. You stole something else such as another person's trust. You deliberately filed an incorrect tax return. When you cheated on your partner you told the person that you cheated with, that you did not have a partner. Your expense report is skewed in your favor. You plagiarized a paper at school. You pretended not to see someone in a public place in order to not have to say hello to them, because something about them embarrasses you. And you feel terribly, horribly, inexorably guilty about it.

Guilt is quite a useless feeling, unless it is used for something worthwhile. In other words, having done something that makes you feel guilty, the actual feeling of guilt is worth nothing to anyone, particularly for the other person, unless you use the feeling to change something in you.

This would generally take the form of an inner change or promise to yourself that whatever it was that was done, will not be repeated. It means that you acknowledge that you have learned a lesson, your guilty feelings are the ones that brought you to that point, and therefore you decide here and now, that you will never do or say this thing again. This is the only good thing about guilt. Feeling guilty to make yourself feel better by telling yourself that because you have a guilty conscience you are atoning for whatever it was that you said or did is totally useless. Changing the behavior such that on all future occasions you will not do this again, is however a highly positive outcome of guilt. It means that the guilt was worth it because it created a change in your intention for the future.

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