- Mental Health
Guilt---or Just an Over-Active Conscience of a Low Self-Esteem
Pleading Guilty While Innocent
Unless we are standing in front of a judge who will not take into consideration anything like our basic human imperfection, feeling guilty is exactly that---only a part of our innate fallible and forgivable nature.
For, everyone, short of a ruthless sociopath, must have something on their conscience that they are not particularly proud of, when it's either about who they are, or what they may have done to others.
Then we may handle that feeling of guilt in different ways. Some will apologize and try to make it up to those folks mending the relationship; but others may take it much more seriously, trying to bury it deep inside where it will not disturb their precious ego.
Not very successfully though, as any new little mistake will associatively pull the whole string of their experiences which "deserve" feeling guilty, like a magician's string of colored handkerchiefs coming out of his pocket.
In defense, they may try to rationalize that guilt, perhaps by telling themselves how the other person "deserved" to be treated that way; or even blaming someone third for the outcome. While any of that may be true, or at least partially so, the feeling of guilt is bound to hang in there like an emotional "verdict and a sentence without a possibility of a parole".
Why is it that we may find it so impossible to shake off our feeling of a guilt? Is it maybe because our guilt is more about something that we "are", than what we have "done"?
Guilt and a Dented Self-Esteem
The root of the matter may lie deep in our very basic sense of our self-worth as human beings, which started forming early in life, at that formative, highly suggestible age. That's when we may have adopted as true all those possible criticizing, belittling, ridiculing remarks about ourselves---especially those of us with a pronounced sensitivity.
As kids, we needed that feeling of security, by being loved, encouraged, supported, praised, and gently corrected, and when it didn't come that way, we automatically joined our accusers with a self-hate. We internally continued beating on ourselves for not deserving that love from those on whom our very existence depended. "There must be something awfully wrong with us"---we reasoned, and then took that dented self-esteem as a life companion with us into adulthood.
With all those dark memories that permanently branded us as "not worthy", we unconsciously feel as rejects, and even a slightest mistake we make draws an exaggerated sense of guilt from those early memories of our life.
Then it turns into a sort of a vicious cycle, with every new "proof" of our guilt strengthening that unconscious tendency to seek more proofs, as we arrange our relationships in such a way that we always somehow manage to come out guilty of something.
It's truly amazing how our mind works, with so many folks spending their whole lives repeating that pattern of feeling guilty and finding new reasons to feel that way. As if something in them wants to be fed with new "proofs" of guilt and for yet another chance to say to themselves: "You see, you just can't be loved, because you always mess it up one way or another". Or they rationalize again, by finding a fault in the others' behavior, not realizing that they set it up that way.
Emotions from Childhood Mostly an Exaggeration
The very first step in healing that guilt is realizing its exaggerated intensity, which is usually the main issue; namely, once when it gets reduced to an ignorable wave of emotional discomfort, similar to so many others that we feel in our daily emotional routine.
It would be a good time to start seeing how just about any emotion that we "borrow" from childhood memories is likely to be an exaggeration. Hardly anybody gets completely emotionally mature as they step into their adulthood, which is to say that there are some remnants of those high intensity feelings, whether good or bad.
For example, our expressions of playfulness may carry that same crude emotional charge of our childhood---according to all those victorious screams, that spasmodic laughter, and excited voices we display.
And the same is, unfortunately, true about some folks' guilt being blown out of proportion. Now, whether that guilt may, or may not have some moral ground of our hurting someone---it certainly doesn't call for that exaggerated replay of childhood emotionalism.
Thus, it's the first thing we've got to face, this tendency of our mind to play tricks on us by intensifying our emotions by its natural function of association. We can easily prove to ourselves this trickery by recognizing our readiness to fully empathize with movie characters who are going through their own struggle with guilt, shame, and self-hate.
Just watch how it doesn't help you to remind yourself that it's "only a movie" and the whole story is fictional. Our mind simply associates it with that "well of uncried tears" in us triggering our own exaggerated emotionality.
So, let's beware of this tendency to unconsciously associate the present situation with all those previous ones in life which carry even a remote similarity to this one. There is nothing "crazy" about it, that's the normal way our minds work. It's only that by the same mind's action our guilt may get amplified, while all those past mistakes may add up in that moment.
Intensified by Association
Indeed, once that pattern of guilt is triggered, our mind scans through the memory bank for all past instances of a similar character, and serves us with an intensity that the present situation is not calling for.
I mean, any insignificant mistake we made on our job, or a dinner that didn't turn out good, or our poor contribution in our team's game, or...well, just about anything of the sort that didn't make us proud of ourselves, to put it in a mild way. The only crazy thing in all this is that we don't have anything like a flashback of all those instances---it's only the feeling that adds up into an intensity, oftentimes expressed with a hateful: "Here, stupid, you messed up again!!!"
Our confidence may suffer a great deal because of guilt. For instance, in romantic matters, if previous few dates ended up by our unconscious "messing it up again", every future one may carry the taste of those, and we may feel how "it's only a matter of time when we are bound to mess it up again. Then we promptly do exactly that.
So, let's remember, the intensity of guilt, possibly stemming from those early life experiences of too much criticism is not a reliable objective indicator about the actual weight of our moral offence, or a mistake in a teamwork, or whatever else may have triggered it. Our mind exaggerates tricking us into a belief that we have done something "terrible".
Those Phantom-Authorities of Mind
Not knowing you at all, I can assure you that your feeling of guilt is just as indicative of your personal value as a sneeze is indicative of an incurable disease. We all carry in ourselves a whole bunch of authority figures, some of them in form of our role models, and others acting as our conscience, or critics of our thoughts, feelings and acts. When these latter ones outnumber those supportive ones, we are prone to feel guilt.
Those inner authorities seek their equivalents in real life, so we become "followers" to that first group, and victims to the second. Authorities, no matter which ones, are a sort of "mental intruders", even parasites in our psychological makeup, because we are perfectly capable of figuring out by ourselves what is right and what is wrong.
It's a default function in our survival arsenal to distinguish between those life-promoting and those life-degrading forms of interacting with others, and we quickly make it functional by getting a feedback to our behavior while very young.
So, to keep those many authorities in your head is something as useless as keeping your driving instructor's words in mind once when you know how to drive. It's all up to you now, just as it is up to you to assess every moment of interacting with others.
Those early critics of your value are totally obsolete in your mind, along with their voices, and it makes absolutely no sense to refer to their judgement every step of the way. You are the only authority in your life now, and if no one is changing your diapers anymore, no one has the power to whisper into your ear when, and how much you should feel guilty.
At this point it also helps to remember that those harshest critics of our past, who may have instilled the guilt into our emotional repertoire are as much---if not more---imperfect humans, with no right granted to play a judge to anybody else.
Not to Identify with Guilt
Thus, getting rid of a chronic sense of guilt starts and ends with a clear picture of our inherent sovereignty, our freedom from all those phantom-authorities masquerading in our minds as some perfect human specimens.
With this insight being louder in our minds than their words of criticism, we can reclaim our self-esteem and junk all that guilt generated at times when we didn't know any better, because we were too young and too impressionable as to think for ourselves. We don't have to act as if that ability got paralyzed at that age, crippling us from using our best judgement about our own worth.
We have to recognize those authorities by the quality of messages our mind is giving us. It's one think to notice a mistake and correcting it---that's a normal part of life. But it's entirely something else to ponder upon our mistakes and summon every possible thought and past feeling that turns into a beating on ourselves for making a mistake.
Also, when such feelings arise, let's not forget about their exaggerated intensity mentioned earlier. Mind is known to play many tricks on us, and we have to consciously sort out those messages and impressions we are getting---many being useless remnants from our less mature stages of development.
In other words, we just can't take seriously every thought and every emotion that pops up in our minds. Let's not forget, we are not our mind, which is merely a sum total of all our repeated thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and emotions. All these are something that we "do", not something that we "are".
Just think how at different times of our lives we can change our beliefs, attitudes, and feelings---but it's not ourselves that changes, we stay this sense of a conscious "I-amness", no matter what. So, let us not identify ourselves with something like guilt either---for one reason or another we created it, and we can also remove it.
Guilt is a useless emotion, it doesn't make us "complete humans", just something of "complete sufferers". If it was a part of our humanness, along with pain, we would keep it for ourselves as to stay "complete", not try to get rid of it, while it's making "less" of who we are.
Sometimes we all need just a little inspirational push in a right direction, which gives me this hope that some of the preceding thoughts could turn out to be helpful to some readers in their getting rid of guilt, whether past or recent.