A few days ago, I discussed the emotion guilt with a friend. In society, guilt is frequently seen as a “negative” emotion, including among mental health professionals. This is a sad state of affairs, as guilt can have a life changing and growing effect on people. The negative spin on guilt may be a result of not understanding its purpose or confusing it with shame. Shame and guilt are often confused.
the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law; culpability. 2. a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
Shame, on the other hand is more visceral. 1. the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another; 2. susceptibility to this feeling; 3. disgrace; ignominy.; 4. a fact or circumstance bringing disgrace or regret.
Shame is much more powerful. Perhaps shame grows from guilt. At times, it may be an appropriate response if the action that causes it is particularly heinous, such as rape, murder, or theft of large sums of money. However, other times, shame is a cancerous outgrowth of guilt and only serves to hold a person in place, judged and broken.
Guilt, on the other hand, deals with actions as well as emotions. An individual either took action, or failed to take action, causing harm to another. The harm can be emotional, physical, spiritual, or mental in nature. The second definition holds the key to healthy, honest guilt, the words responsibility and regret. In order to feel guilt, the person admits responsibility and regrets his/her actions. This is a healthy sign of possessing a conscience and a connection to society. How it becomes harmful, or unhealthy, is how an individual responds to guilt.
Guilt is healthy when the person is truly sorry for the harmful decision and is motivated to take accountability. This decision should result in the desire to change future choices and not to repeat the same harmful behavior in the future. What does it mean to be truly sorry? It is regret for the harm caused by the action to another individual, society, etc. It is not a self-directed concept, “I’m sorry I got caught and might be punished,” or even “I’m sorry I sinned.” The latter is not a bad place to be, if your spirituality teaches the concept of sin and repentance. But, feeling sorry for sin alone is not enough. It is still only about that individual, not the harm that was caused to another.
Repentance is the action of turning away from sin and toward God, as defined by Christian teaching. To me, it is more. It is a turning away from harming self and/or others through actions, thoughts, and behaviors. It is turning toward one’s higher self, and that connection to Deity, in whatever form(s) the individual believes. There is also a component of “balancing the scales” or “righting the wrong.” The Wiccan Rede introduces the Three Fold Law, “Ever mind the Rule of Three. What ye sends out comes back to thee.” This is a serious concept. It not only includes actions, but also emotions, thoughts, and energies. In Wicca, actions have consequences. At times, an individual may not recognize the Rule in action, but it still exists. Guilt, for a spiritual person, is a call back to the higher concepts of spiritual living. Balancing the scales can be done actively or passively. Every action has a response. Waiting for others, or the Universe, to respond to an action is being passive. Most likely, the individual will continue to feel guilt, as he/she has not taken action to correct the situation. Taking action allows the person to fully accept responsibility and bring some healing to the harm done. For example, “Joe” steals $50 from a friend. He later feels guilty. Joe decides to return the money and apologize to his friend. His friend is angry at Joe and tells him to leave. In this example, Joe’s friendship was damaged by the theft. However, the friend’s reaction is less important than Joe’s choice to return the money and apologize. Although sorry, there is still a consequence to his prior action. Hopefully, Joe learns that theft is not a healthy choice and makes a different decision in the future. What makes accountability so hard in some situations is that piece of having to face consequences. If the wrong was severe, they can be quite high. But, one will not be free from guilt until admitting the wrong and taking responsibility. It also leads to continued spiritual and personal growth, as one learns from mistakes and changes behavior.