You are standing, as a defendant, in a court room and the judge asks you “How do you plead?”
Your answer is “Not guilty Your Honor.”
At the end of the trial, you are either “guilty” or “not guilty”.
In this context, the meaning of the word “guilty” is directly connected to the event in question (the crime) and whether you did, or did not participate in that event.
The word guilty also applies to the emotion of guilt and the belief that you have done something “wrong”.
Let’s briefly explore the emotion of guilt.
The emotion of guilt communicates to you the message that you believe that your actions have in some way violated..
- your values,
- your ethics,
- your sense of right vs wrong or
- some stated set of rules of conduct
Example #1: Rationalized Theft
Many years ago, when I (as a young Boy Scout) attended a Boy Scout Jamboree, I was trading pocket patches with another Scout. I did not realize until later that this Scout had stolen some of my prized patches.
I was incensed.
Later, when I had the opportunity to steal from another Scout, I did so and justified my actions by rationalizing that it was “okay” because it had happened to me.
(As a head’s up, in my next post, I will discuss the concept of rationalize vs rational lies.)
- Did I know that what I did was “wrong”? Yes.
- Did it bother me that I did it? Not at first.
- Did I feel guilty as I thought about what I had done? Yes
The emotion of guilt that I experienced was doing its job….
- by informing me that I had violated my own value that stealing was wrong
- by motivating me to take action to make right the wrong I had committed.
This is what guilt (as an emotion) is designed to do.
When you strategically deploy guilt as an emotion, your task is to go through the steps of the emotional process which includes:
- correctly labelling the emotion as guilt
- taking a deep breath to decrease your emotional arousal
- taking a “step” back from the situation to increase your objectivity
- assessing the validity of the actions you have taken by attempting to determine whether it was right or wrong according to your values not the context
- choosing an appropriate response to rectify what has been done (if needed)
When it comes to dealing with the emotion of guilt, there are four options..
- assess the situation and realize that you did not do anything wrong, based on the situation, context, and objective reality of what you did that and let the guilt dissipate
- stop the behavior, make the situation right and eliminate your guilt
- continue the behavior and attempt to deny your guilt
- continue the behavior, rationalize your actions, and move past your guilt.
Options #1 and #2 involve mastering the emotion of guilt and are the most appropriate responses.
Option #3 doesn’t work because the emotion will always come back
Option #4 is just masochistic in that it rationalizes an unwanted behavior and makes you vulnerable to negative consequences at some future date.
In this space, I have attempted to give you the tools to understand your emotions, utilize the message of your emotions as motivation to engage the emotional process and strategically deploy your emotions as motivators to improve your life and your relationships.
From this perspective, the best option for you to take when you experience the emotion of guilt is (depending on your assessment) either #1 or #2.
Closure for example #1..
By the way, I acted on my guilt by finding the Scout whose patches I had stolen, explained that I had found them in my backpack, realized that they were his, and returned them. I still got in trouble but the “sentence” was reduced for “good behavior”.
Example #2: Exaggerated Guilt
While working as a Psychologist for the California Youth Authority, I treated several young women who had killed their children.
While the “facts” of each case were not in question, treating the impact of the emotion of guilt was an issue.
Specifically, these young women not only felt guilty for what they had done but viewed themselves as “monsters” based on the seriousness of their crime.
My therapeutic approach was to “normalize” their guilt and help them realize that while their actions may have been monstrous, they were not monsters because the context of their actions (including their own abuse) made their actions “understandable”.
Now, I need to emphasize two points…
First. I never exonerated them for what they did. They did it, their guilt was appropriate, and they were being “punished”. What I did, therapeutically, was to put their guilt in perspective so that it could function as a learning tool and not as an impediment to their psychological growth.
Secondly, I need to point out that I was never rationalizing or justifying what they did. The context, in each case, did make what they did understandable.
The context, however, never made what they did right!