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Guilt---or Just an Over-Active Conscience of a Low Self-Esteem

Updated on April 15, 2018
ValKaras profile image

Val is a life-long practically oriented student of effective emotional and attitudinal responses to the many challenges of life.

With Guilt We Create Our Own Prison and Sometimes Throw Away the Key
With Guilt We Create Our Own Prison and Sometimes Throw Away the Key

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 May Stem from Low Self-Esteem, while Merely Triggered by a Mistake
Guilt May Stem from Low Self-Esteem, while Merely Triggered by a Mistake

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.

In the Theatre of Our Mind Every Phantom of the Past Can Play Its Game
In the Theatre of Our Mind Every Phantom of the Past Can Play Its Game

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.

Life May Turn Into a Collection of Proofs How We "Can't Do It Right"
Life May Turn Into a Collection of Proofs How We "Can't Do It Right"

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".

Our Inner Judges Must Look Beautiful Since We Are Holding Onto Them
Our Inner Judges Must Look Beautiful Since We Are Holding Onto Them

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.

No One Other Than Ourselves Can Embrace Our Imperfect Humanness---so That It Brings Peace to Our Hearts
No One Other Than Ourselves Can Embrace Our Imperfect Humanness---so That It Brings Peace to Our Hearts

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.


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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 16 months ago from The Caribbean

      Val, I appreciate you thinking of me that way. I have great respect for you also.

    • ValKaras profile image

      Vladimir Karas 16 months ago from Canada

      Eleanore---Like I hinted in the very first sentence of my article, those cases of wrongdoing which appear in front of a judge were not to be the theme of it. Of course, the legal term of "guilt" stays intact and no one can take anything away from it.

      My article was about all those useless and exaggerated feelings of guilt which mostly stem from a low self-esteem or even self-hate.

      Other than that, we humans have something like a default negative feedback mechanism which lets us know when our game of survival among others is off the course. There is no need to feel "guilty" for badmouthing someone---we just realize that it's wrong and it may backfire, and then learn something from it, hopefully correcting it too.

      Again, it's about a positive step to correct something in our behavior---not about dragging this crippling emotion through our life which hijacks our self-esteem and confidence, possibly ruining all chances of having a trustful relationship.

      Many folks feel guilty---not because of anything that they have "done" but who they "are" in their exaggerated self-critical mode of self-assessing. And those were the ones that I basically write about.

      As for those kids "stealing from the cookie jar", and all other crazy little things that kids do out of adventurous playfulness---I don't think they should feel "guilty" for it---just corrected, by being told "what happens in their adult life when they take something that they are not allowed to".

      All in all, "guilt" is just another of our negativistic and useless emotions. We even call those prisons "correctional centers", not "centers for contemplating on our guilt".

    • Ewent profile image

      Eleanore Ferranti Whitaker 16 months ago from Old Bridge, New Jersey

      In my opinion, there is nothing religious about guilt. Were Charles Manson, Al Capone or John Dillinger religous men?

      The problem today is the refusal to admit guilt when guilt is justified. Now, even the courts in the US are under siege by people who try to reinterpret laws to avoid guilt. How dangerous is that?

      And what message does it send to little children when their best examples of behavior comes from parents who never accept guilt when guilt is due?

      Religion plays less of a role in conscience and admitting guilt than the human mind does. There are literally people born in this world totally without the ability to admit guilt. This gives them entitlement to be lawless and inflict on society the kind of lawlessness and chaos their guiltlessness predicates.

      There is a reason very young children "feel guilty" when they stick their hands into a cookie jar when they know they are not supposed to. They were given rules to follow and when they don't follow rules, even when parents are not in sight, they instinctively feel guilty.

      Today's society wants full absolution of guilt under all circumstances. A free for all society without rules and regulations that keep all of us from killing each other.

    • ValKaras profile image

      Vladimir Karas 16 months ago from Canada

      Michael, my friend---It's great to see that you have found peace from anything bothersome. Not so many people could.

    • Michael-Milec profile image

      Michael-Milec 16 months ago

      Hello Vladimir...Why should someone be religious to 'feel' free of guilt ? Or even better to carry a guilt of childhood? Psychologically your article is touching mental / emotional part of human being save the most real innermost "me " the spirit man. Nothing bothers me anymore." I am forgiven!" If, let say if I suppose to be guilty or feel guilty - no one is after me; knowing that past doesnt exist , within my conscience I am aware before it happens.


    • ValKaras profile image

      Vladimir Karas 16 months ago from Canada

      MsDora--- Knowing that you are coming from a religious aspect of guilt---I understand. However, I don't think that a sense of morality is only possible through the negative feedback of the feeling of guilt. In my mind it comes from a cultivated inner harmony which then expresses itself outwardly over our style of interacting with others.

      To give a justified place to guilt in the specter of our emotionality would be like saying that we are law abiding citizens only because we are scared of the punishment for not respecting the law.

      Intensity is a good parameter. When we realize that we have hurt someone, it doesn't have to expand into a guilt, but stay at the level of learning from that experience---and correcting what we have done.

      You must forgive me if I don't accept the biblical interpretation of "all of us being born sinners". I have an enormous respect for your personal faith, and somehow I believe that you are not taking that one literally either. But even if you did, I would still think of you as a very positive, wise, and helpful lady.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 16 months ago from The Caribbean

      This I accept: "just about any emotion that we "borrow" from childhood memories is likely to be an exaggeration."

      This I do not accept: "Guilt is a useless emotion" although it might be true that we give it more power than it deserves. We don't have to debate it.

      I like your topics and your style of writing. I read you more often than I comment.


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