Just about all of us experience guilt one way or another. But how much, for how long, and in what circumstances?
Did we pinch our younger brother when he took the last cookie from the plate? After all, father noticed and admonished us for being so mean. Would we have felt guilt if father hadn’t reacted? Did we feel guilt for being mean — or were we just mad that we were caught in the act?
Or was it the day when we were invited to a friend’s birthday party, but opted to duck out and go to a rock concert. Our friend was enthusiastic about our coming to her party, but we bailed at the last minute because something better came up.
How much guilt did we feel, if any? And if we did feel guilt, what was that guilt about?
Many of us identify with guilt — we’re raised with the moral attribute of “healthy guilt.” A moral code that keeps us from doing harm to ourselves and to our fellow men and women.
Guilt can serve as an accountability regulator. Parents often utilize it when teaching a child about awareness of others. Care about yourself and about others as well. A reasonable caring message.
Guilt reminds us that we can cause pain. In doing so, it awakens and sustains our awareness of the importance of relationships and interactions with others.
You know the humorous expressions such as, “Oh, that’s just my Jewish Guilt” (or Catholic Guilt). That’s the healthy guilt from childhood. Good for the family; good for the community.
Guilt can be a regulator between narcissistic self-involvement and the important awareness that we are all interconnected and interdependent upon one another for our well being and survival.
Guilt keeps us in check as mindful, concerned citizens: Don’t you feel guilty? a friend might say. Perhaps we benefit from inner admonishment — our Jimmy Cricket perched on our shoulders, whispering quietly (or maybe bellowing) in our ear, reminding us to be generous kind, aware, sensitive souls. “Let your conscience be your guide.”
The darker side of guilt
There are times, however, when we rebel. We feel guilt but don’t think it’s fair to feel this way. What might this rebellion represent? Perhaps there is something more in the “spectrum of guilt” to consider.
There are other strains of guilt that may be experienced as unnecessary and unfair burdens. Guilt that may not be ours to bear. Traumatic guilt. Toxic, unhealthful and even dangerous if we take on the weight of other people’s behaviors by muzzling our feelings about them. We feel guilty for speaking out.
Here’s an example: A girl age 10 has an alcoholic mother. From a young age the daughter became the designated caregiver to her brothers and father. The mother’s disease has gone untreated and it has affected the family for years. The parents expected her to take on this “role” and the child never questioned it.
Years later, the daughter is accepted into a good university far away from home. She longs to go. She is a straight-A student (as is often the case with children in addictive family systems).
Her mother’s drinking has not subsided. The father has not taken steps to confront it. The young woman now suffers from unhealthy guilt as well as chronic fear over the prospect of leaving family members to fend for themselves.
This child has never been protected and now — in the midst of an opportunity that could change her life for the better — she is plagued by traumatic guilt.
Her mother fails to support her leaving, for her daughter has served a valuable function for her — buffering the mother’s responsibility to seek treatment.
A bright spot: Her older brother encourages her, reminding her that she deserves to go, that they will be OK, that they will cope. Years of indoctrination in being the family caretaker makes it hard for this young women to trust his words, despite his healthy recommendation.
What this young woman suffers from might be termed traumatic guilt. She is tormented with grief and guilt, wrestling with fears and anxieties about whether she can for the first time in her life chose a life in which she is the priority.
This traumatic guilt is directly associated with the concept of sacrifice, rather than a result of doing something wrong, such as selfishly harming someone.
How to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy guilt
An essential distinction between healthy guilt and traumatic guilt is the element of free will.
Healthy guilt typically arises as a result of harming someone — by being thoughtless or intentionally inconsiderate of the pain another may experience.
Traumatic guilt seems to have more of a flavor of the perception of harming someone when one is forced to assume a role in life not out of choice, but out of imposition. Non-relational guilt, if you will.
(Imposition presupposes one person’s demands without incorporating the needs or wants of the other person.)
Healthy guilt considers both parties involved, as awareness of the other and the self — it reflects on how one person’s feelings or needs may not have been considered in addition to yours.
These fine yet distinctive elements that separate the different types of guilt are important to ponder and distinguish. Pause and consider which belongs to you in any given situation — it may well be worth taking the time to reflect on.