Guilt is an irrational reaction to circumstances and to our responses and actions in relation to those circumstances. When we “fall short” and act in ways that are destructive or that have harmful or painful results, what is that? Isn’t it simply acting in a way that is not in complete accord with the reality of the situation? In other words, it’s a mistake, an error.
What is the appropriate response to an error? Isn’t it to simply correct it? Guilt actually avoids that correction by muddying the waters emotionally with negative self-criticism and judgements. Guilt says, “I did this, and that means I’m a bad person and I deserve to be punished.” This is an irrational reaction that prevents, or at the very least postpones, a lucid and appropriate response to the original error.
If you make a math error, what is the most appropriate response? Isn’t it to simply correct it? If you’re balancing your checkbook, and it isn’t coming out right, you could beat yourself up with negative self-talk. You could say, “I’m horrible at math, and I’ll never get this right, and I’m doomed to failure and to being miserable for my entire life.” But of course, all that does is waste time and energy that could be used to correct the error and find the right answer. The rational response is to keep working at the problem until you find your mistake, correct it, and successfully balance the checkbook.
In this context, by “rational”, I simply mean that you’re responding appropriately to and in accord with the “truth” of the situation. The truth of the situation is that you made an error in your addition or subtraction somewhere along the way, and you need to go back and find it and correct it. That’s the most rational response because it’s the most effective for reaching the goal of balancing the checkbook in a timely manner.
If our goal is to have a happy and fulfilling life, we must similarly choose the most effective responses to the truth of any situation, and correct any errors along the way as they arise, in order to reach our objective. Guilt always interferes with this process.
Just as with balancing our checkbook, there is also a natural “balance” to the truth of more complex situations that have more personal and far-reaching implications on our lives. But unfortunately it’s much easier to become emotionally attached to and judgmental about the consequences of such situations. Nonetheless the same principles still apply.
For example, when we act selfishly and do something that results in causing pain for someone else, the “balance” may be that they will withdraw from relationship with us and, assuming we value the relationship, the effect may be that we experience the pain of their withdrawal. The purpose of our pain is to help us realize the error of selfish actions.
At this point we can beat ourselves up emotionally with guilt over our “evil deed”; or worse, we can project our feelings of guilt onto the other person and blame them for withdrawing from us. Or… we can simply identify our mistake, acknowledge it, and take actions to correct it. We can apologize honestly and sincerely, do our best to learn from our error, and avoid acting selfishly in the future.
When we act in selfish, destructive, and harmful ways, it doesn’t mean we’re bad. It just means that we don’t yet understand the “truth” of the actual cause and effect of the situation. If we did, we simply wouldn’t behave in that way. If you haven’t yet learned that 2 + 4 = 6, it doesn’t mean you’re inherently bad at math. It just means you don’t yet understand some of the rules of addition.
That’s what trial and error is for. It teaches us the “rules” of cause and effect in any situation. When we get unpleasant or undesirable results, the rational response is to look for the actions that caused those results and change them. Harboring guilt, or blame (which is really just guilt that’s been projected onto another person or an outside situation), prevents us both from seeing the truth of the situation and from acting appropriately to correct our mistaken perspectives and actions.
It’s true that the cause and effect of complex personal life situations can sometimes be difficult to uncover and understand. But any form of guilt always stops the process and muddies the waters. So the first step must always be to eliminate guilt from the equation. Often simply doing so will open our eyes to the truth of the situation and allow understanding to arise.
Sometimes simply allowing ourselves to let go of guilt can be a truly magical and enlightening experience. It can be one in which we’re immediately freed from our blinders, and our previous confusion and frustration are powerfully overshadowed by a deep and abiding insight into the truth of a situation that shines forth in blinding clarity.
It’s also important to understand that guilt is not the same as remorse. Guilt is beating ourselves up emotionally for a past mistake. It thereby prevents clarity and understanding and makes it likely that the mistake will be repeated. It’s actually a way of holding onto the error. Remorse, on the other hand, is realizing that our actions caused pain, having empathy for the pain that our actions brought about, and being moved to correct the error and alleviate the pain. Remorse helps with correction, guilt prevents it.
Understanding all of this is in fact one form of learning about the rules of cause and effect. Holding guilt is the cause that results in the effect of a lack of clarity, a prevention of the correction of errors, and of postponing the realization of our goal of fulfillment and happiness. Furthermore, since our subconscious mind acts to bring about whatever we hold in our imagination with a strong emotional focus, holding guilt actually acts to reinforce and recreate the very error that we feel guilty about.
But when you notice that you’re holding guilt, don’t make the further error of feeling guilty about your guilt! (An all too easy mistake to make for those of us who are in the habit of holding guilt.) When you realize that you’re feeling guilty, the rational response is to simply acknowledge that it’s an erroneous choice and that you can in fact choose differently. Then simply take action to do so.
You can begin to form different habits of responding to your mistakes. You can even become grateful when you realize you’ve made a mistake. Instead of, “I can’t believe I did that, I’m a horrible person, I’ll never get it right!”, your self-talk can instead become: “Oh! That’s why that didn’t work out the way I intended. Now I know exactly what not to do in the future. I certainly won’t make that mistake again. Awesome!!!”
And above all else, remember that no matter how many times you’ve chosen guilt in the past, you can always choose a more rational approach here and now! The choice is yours. The choice is true magic!