WHAT IS GUILT
What is guilt? The short answer is: “It’s complicated.” The long answer is: “It’s an integral part of life and beyond our current ability to understand. All we can do is scratch the surface.
A. Definition of Guilt
The dictionary defines guilt as a feeling of deserving blame for various offences. Another definition is the unhappy feeling because you have done something you think was wrong. Wikipedia probably has the closest definition. It is a moral emotion when a person believes they may have compromised their own standards. Although related, it is not the same as shame. Shame arises from perceptions coming from others, whereas guilt arises from inside us. Sending everyone else to another planet may eliminate shame, but it would make guilt unbearable.
B. What Causes Guilt?
Many say that guilt arises from something we did or think we did, or think we should have done. It also includes matters of chance, i.e. my friend loss all of his money and I did not lose anything. All fears cause a degree of guilt with the social fears having strongest connections. Strange as it sounds, the lack of fears can also trigger guilt. People who were abused or encountered a traumatic event often feel guilt.
It is apparent that the causes of guilt are extremely broad. But the number one cause is manipulation. All governments get what they want by using guilt. All media, social and news, flourish on guilt. The entire basis for climate change based on burning fossil fuels is because of guilt. All movies, particularly those labeled as documentary, are riddled with words, phrases, images, and sounds that generate guilt. The entertainment industry inserts guilt into every romance novel/movie. Religions use guilt to control their followers. Check out the chapter on Manipulation to learn the various fallacies and techniques.
C. Conventional Treatment Methods
There are many treatments that have shown success. When the guilt is so severe that it becomes a phobia, such as obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, thoughts of suicide, and many others, then professional help is required. Putting treatment off can be life threatening and self-help is often inadequate without guidance. If you feel that your guilt is becoming over-whelming, do yourself a favor. Seek out professional advice.
There are many free clinics, state sponsored programs, and philanthropic organizations that can help. There are on-line CBT therapies available such as Talkspace, BetterHelp, ReGain and many others. Whenever you deal with health issues, do not over-look insurance coverage.
The standard Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the gold standard in treating fears. It is also an effective method in treating abnormal guilt. The TrIGR therapy is one type of CBT that has been shown to benefit people suffering from PTSD. This therapy involves learning the types of guilt, analyzing thinking errors, and developing recovery plans personal to you.
What is CBT? There are many books and articles on this subject. Watching a few Youtube™ videos and Ted talks can be helpful. There is an article on 25 CBT techniques and identifies available workshops.
D. Reducing Guilt by Forgiving Yourself
1. Negotiated Forgiveness
This is where you approach the victims and ask them “what can I do to make amends and for you to forgive me?” It is possible that they only what a verbal apology and for the two of you to resume your friendship. This is the quickest and most effective way to find out where you stand with a person you have wronged. And you might eliminate stored up guilt. If you believe that this is too simple to be credible, then you would be inconsistent with Albert Einstein and the fundamental laws of Nature, i.e. beautiful simplicity.
Although this method works for the overwhelming majority of cases, it does not apply to the most serious and emotional injuries. That would require using the Traditional Methods.
2. Forgiveness Using the Traditional Method
The conventional wisdom is that you must acknowledge your responsibility and then be truly sorry or remorseful for you actions.
(a) Acknowledge Responsibility. This first step requires an understanding of why you think you’re responsible. Sometimes it is obvious. For example, your friend informs you that she is going to make an offer to buy a home in a neighborhood closer to her parents. You make an anonymous offer that outbids her. You now feel guilty. Clearly you have breached your friend’s confidence. There is no criminal action or civil liability. But, everyone understands that such conduct is morally and socially unacceptable.
Most people can quickly identify what it was that triggered their guilt such as the example presented. But, that is not always true. Take for example that you won the lottery and your friend, who also bought a ticket, did not win. You feel guilty for winning. In this situation false negative thoughts triggered your guilt. The following are some helpful rules to determine the validity of the reasons for your feeling of guilty. Often the basic knowledge that your guilt is based on a false negative thought is all that is necessary to purge the guilt.
Scenario Number One –Based On Real Factual Actions/Inactions.
If your feelings are based on wrongful actual actions/inactions, your job is not done. There must be a “protected class” connection to the person hurt, such as a friendship, family member, close working relationship, or other close fraternal or religious relationship. There will always be someone adversely affected by any of your actions or inactions. That scope is too broad.
Society may have decided that the protected class must be increased to cover criminal acts and civil liabilities.
Next, the real actions/inactions must be wrongful. That is, it must violate some moral, legal, religious, social, or agreed-upon duty or obligation. For example, the social norms in a far-away land may be to not spit in public, but not where you live. In that event, spitting in public is not a wrongful act, and there is no further action needed. You treat the matter as a false negative thought.
When looking at the harm done, the element of causation must be addressed. That means your actions must have caused the hurt feelings or damages. This is a tricky issue. It does not mean that you are off the hook. In the earlier example, if your friend could not qualify for the home purchase then you are not responsible for economic damages associated with the loss of sale. But, the causation analysis only applies to that element of injury or damage. It may not apply to other elements, such as “your breach of confidence” etc.
Finally, if you’re wrongful actions/inactions, in fact, caused a protected class member to be hurt then you must announce, i.e. state out-loud (in a private location) your wrongful actions and the harm you caused. This must be repeated multiple times until you truly understand the consequences of your actions.
(1) The more details in the announced list the easier it will be to eventually forgive yourself. If you broadly state your actions, i.e. I outbid by friend, then the narrower the forgiveness will be. For example, you will continue to have guilt associated with breaching your friend’s confidence. You will continue to have guilt in failing to tell your friend (trustworthiness) what you did. You will continue to have guilt in securing an advantage over your friend (manipulation). The more specific you are the broader your self-forgiveness will be.
(2) Identify why your actions were wrong in your mind. Again, the more specific, the better. For example, “My church and the religious documents taught me that I should treat others the way I would want them to treat me.” My parents taught me that honesty is the foundation for all dealings. My teacher taught me to keep conversations with friends confidential. My friends taught me the importance of friendship and comradery. You may not know it, but your breaches to your church, parents, teachers, and friends may be more important in your subconscious than your actions.
(3) Identify how you hurt your friend. Details are important. Use as many emotion words as possible, such as I was dishonest, untrustworthy, uncaring, greedy, mean, betraying, etc. If you told your friend that you were going to bid on the property, then many of those emotions may not apply. But, others may still apply, i.e. greedy, uncaring, etc.
In addition to identifying the emotions, the actual facts need to be stated. She lost the home she wanted, she paid more money for a less desirable home, she lost trust in me as a friend, she had to drive further, her credit was diminished, she had to pay more for her loan, or the interest rates have gone up and she suffered emotional distress. Again, only those facts that were caused by your actions/inactions are covered.
Scenario Number Two – Based on False Negative Thoughts.
Under this scenario, your perceived responsibility is based on a false negative thought and not a real act or failure to act. This might sound like an obvious distinction. It is not. The electrical signals in your brain coming from false negative thoughts are the same signals that come from factual observations. There is no difference between what you saw and what you think you saw? Here are some hints to help you distinguish between what is real and what is not.
(1) Almost all false negative thoughts carry heavy emotions and those emotions are directed against you. Take the example, a young girl knocks on your door pleading for food. You go to the refrigerator and get some food. By the time you return, the child has died. Do you feel guilty because you were too slow in providing food? Notice that this emotion is negative and is directed against you.
Can you identify the cloths she was wearing? If it was a real situation, you could identify numerous non-emotional facts. False negative thoughts are not real and as such carry very few factual details. Real observations always come with real non-emotional facts. This is an example of false negative thoughts coming from non-real events, such as dreams, hallucinations, fantasies, etc.
But be careful, false negative thoughts often arise from real factual situations. For example, you heard your friend mispronounce a word during a speech and you thought it was funny. You felt guilty for thinking it was funny. This speech actually occurred, but the false negative thought was that you disrespected your friend. What facts can you recall relating to the disrespectful laughter? Can you describe the people around you who heard you laugh? What did they do? Did you friend stop talking and look at you when you laughed? Those facts are missing since it was a false negative thought.
(2) Mind Reading. Is the false negative thought based on your interpretation of what was in the mind of another? This is a common occurrence. It is a red flag that it is a false negative thought. Try and recall what words were used that gave you that impression? If it was a gesture, what was the gesture? How many times in your history have you misinterpreted words or gestures?
(3) All or Nothing or Black and White Situations. Is the negative thought based on something that leaves no room for alternatives or explanations? For example, you went to a job interview and they asked a question that you did not anticipate. You felt unprepared. You did not get the job and you felt that you failed because you were unprepared. Can you think of any reason that your answer was adequate? If you cannot, then it is probably a false negative thought.
Here is another way to spot the all or nothing analysis. When you left the interview did you say to yourself, “I really blew that one”, “I have no chance for this job,” I always lose it at the last minute,” etc. Those types of words are training words used by the Negative Thoughts Department of your brain. If you ever said those kinds of things, you should now be able to spot false negative thoughts.
(4) Low Self-Esteem. Low self-esteem is not a true element of false negative thoughts. However, it increases your chances of having such thoughts. If you think you are a loser, you will find it difficult, if not impossible, to detect, analyze, and overcome those thoughts.
How do you know if you have low self-esteem?
- Number one, you say negative things about yourself. Things like:
I can’t cope with that kind of pressure;
I get picked on because I deserve it.
I eat to relieve my emotional pain.
I’m fat, I’m skinny, I’m ugly, I’m dumb, and many other things starting with “I’m.”
If you constantly look at the number of “likes” on your social media website for personal validation.
All of these factors point to potential low self-esteem. Ouch, you probably did not see that one coming. Use this knowledge to your advantage, i.e. to understand you need help in raising your self-esteem.
- Number two, you have a hard time keeping a full time job. This is usually a work ethic issue. There are very few hard-working people who have a low self-esteem. It has very little to do with wealth or poverty. Hollywood is full of wealthy people with low self-esteem. If you are unsure whether you have a work ethic problem, go to work on a farm or ranch for a year. If you have a hard time getting out of bed when the Rooster crows, that is an early hint.
- Number three, you use alcohol or drugs as an escape, i.e. to avoid coping with real world problems. This is not the same thing as being chemically addicted. Those people need alcohol or drugs to satisfy a biological chemical need. This applies to those who drink to avoid facing criticism or coping with daily problems. If you fall into this category, then use that knowledge to seek help in improving your self-esteem.
- Number four, you have a difficult time making decisions on simple matters. What am I going to wear today? Where should we eat tonight? Should I take the freeway or stay on surface streets. Should I go for a walk? In this regard, healthy people should take for a walk every day with a sustaining goal of 10,000 steps a day.
Once you have determined that a false negative thought has caused your guilt, the next step is to not feel guilty. Although it might sound difficult, there are steps that will help you reduce your guilt. But, the solution is not exactly what you think. There is no acknowledgement of responsibility, and there is no apology.
The first thing you should do when you figure out that you have a false negative thought is to identify the thought as a false negative thought. The next thing you do is congratulate yourself in exposing the negative thought. Do something that brings you JOY. This congratulation step is important as it rewards you for spotting negative thoughts. Every time you recognize a false negative thought—stop what you are doing and SMILE. If you are alone, do a little dance. Do something fun that acknowledges your discovery. And do it every time.
(b) Remorse/I’m Sorry. This is something one cannot fake or conceal. It is like lying to yourself or to your God. Not only does lying not work, it does the opposite. The lie adds more guilty feelings. Remorse/I’m Sorry does not apply to false negative thoughts. This is because you should not feel sorry for something that does not exist. This is a slight divergence from religious teachings that suggest improper thoughts are sinful. On the other hand, if you have repeated abnormal improper thoughts on the same subject, it might be a red flag that you have a subconscious guilt that needs to be addressed
Being specific with the acknowledgement of responsibilities discussed in section (a), makes it easier to implement the Remorseful or I’m Sorry step. There are several ways to apply this step.
(1) Apologize and Request Forgiveness. This method requires you to apologize for each and every wrongful action/inaction you did, each harm caused by you, and request forgiveness from the person wronged for each action and harm. This requires an apology only for wrongful action/inaction and harm caused by your actions/inactions. You do not apologize for actions/inactions that are not wrongful, nor do you apologize for damages or injuries that were not caused by you.
This Remorse step is only applicable to that guilt inside you. What and how your friend or other protected class member feels, is not the issue. Those people may be operating under their own false negative thoughts.
However, there may be portions of the facts or emotions that apply and some that do not apply. In the example where a person outbid their friend on a home they were trying to buy, there may be damages that were not applicable. For example, if the friend could not qualify for buying the home, there is no need to apology for that element of damage. But there is an obligation to apologize for the dishonesty, untrustworthiness, breach of confidence, etc.
The victim does not have to forgive you, although that would help you to reduce your guilt. But you should request their forgiveness. If you do not request forgiveness it might be viewed by your Negative Thoughts Department as a sign of weakness, which might trigger its own guilt.
Next, you must listen. The victim may identify many other actions that you forgot or did not know about. You must listen with an open mind and resist the temptation to justify or defend yourself.
Ask for forgiveness using direct unambiguous words, such as, Will you forgive me for each of the actions and the damages you caused. Do not temper your apology with defensive words such as “based on my point of view” or “what I thought I was doing,” etc. This is not the same as correcting a misunderstanding or mistake that a friend may believe. This section deals with guilt inside you. If you apologize for something that did not occur, it may be interpreted as a phony apology.
(2) Confession. This process has its roots in most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. However, some believe that confession must be to God and not mortal man. The Catholic Church extended confession to be performed at least once a month and preferably more often. There are small studies that provide support that full confessions reduce guilt and provide a pathway to psychological freedom. [Milton W. Horowitz, Psychology of Confession, Vol 47, Issue 2, J. Crim. L. Criminology pgs. 197-205 (1956) ]
There is universal medical support that holding-in stress, such as guilt, is unhealthy.
E. Reducing Guilt by Forgetting
This usually does not work for full blown phobias. It also carries the burden that the Negative Thoughts Department may tell you that trying to forget means you are weak and unworthy. This can cause additional guilt.
But, forgetting is a valid method for reducing guilt. This may include Forgetting by Passage of Time, Forgetting by Ritual Release Techniques, and Forgetting by Hypnosis.
1. Forgetting with Passage of Time. Every person forgets. Studies have shown that 50 percent of the minor unimportant facts are forgotten in 1 hour and 70% are forgotten in 24 hours. Emotional matters take much longer. About 50 percent of people are able to get over a romantic encounter after 5 weeks. But 10 percent have significant feelings after 5 months. A few people continue to have feelings 25 years later.
For the less emotional guilt triggers, this is a good process. Just wait it out. For the more emotional or more memorable encounters other methods discussed in paragraphs C and D may be more effective.
2. Forgetting using the Ritual Release Technique. This is where a particular memory is converted into a mental snapshot in your mind. Then the mental snapshot is consciously set on fire or destroyed. Quorvita was unable to locate any credible scientific studies that support or reject this technique.
3. Forgetting using drugs. This is not recommended. If this treatment is used, it must be under close supervision by qualified medical doctors. There have been reports of delayed neurotic episodes years later with certain drugs.
4. Forgetting using Hypnosis. Hypnosis has been used repeatedly to help people remember traumatic events that were being suppressed. It suggests that the opposite might be true, i.e. it can be used to help people forget. That issue was addressed in studies published in a 2008 article in Scientific American. The results were mixed but show that hypnosis can be used to influence brain activity. Other studies find that it may be more effective on short term memories but not so much on long term memories.
Quorvita could not locate any scientific studies that investigates the next necessary link. That is, whether forgetting an event using hypnosis also reduces guilt associated with that event.
F. PRACTICE EXERCISES
Easy Exercise 1. Marvin is driving his family to church. He is trying to separate his young daughter and son from arguing in the back seat and inadvertently cuts off another driver. The driver honks his horn and flashes a stern look. Marvin feels guilty for not paying attention to the road. Which of the following answers is best for this situation?
Potential Answers to Exercise 1.
(a) Pull the other driver over and apologize;
(b) Do nothing because the other driver was not within the protected class;
(c) When he gets homes he lists everything he did wrong and all of the damages it caused to the other driver;
(d) Forget it;
(e) Picture the driver’s car in your mind then set it on fire, or
(f) Ignore it because it is a False Negative Thought.
The best answer is (d). Forget it. This kind of incident will be forgotten in a few hours. By taking this incident to a higher level will cement the negative encounter in your memory.
Answer (a) might be dangerous. Chasing down the other driver to apologize may scare the other driver and cause an accident. Answer (b) does not apply because the other driver is within the protected class as determined by local driving laws. Answer (c) implies that the father has some anger problems and may need to address those issues. Answer (f) is not applicable since this is a real incident and not one made up in the father’s mind.
Easy Exercise 2. Helen is constantly on social media. She posts a statement that her friend Sally told her that she is going to have her eyebrows darkened with a tattoo. Sally is upset that others will know she’s geeting a tattoo. She immediately blocks Helen access to her posts and refuses to return her texts. Helen regrets what she did. What should Helen do? If there are multiple answers put them in the preferred order?
Potential Answers to Exercise 2.
(a) Helen should call Sally and tell her that she’s sorry and ask what she can do to correct things between them;
(b) She should do nothing since it did not cause any damage to Sally;
(c) Helen should make a list of what she did wrong and how it may have hurt Sally. Then she should apologize to Sally for her actions and ask for forgiveness;
(d) She should seek out the help of a hypnotist;
(e) She should stop or reduce using social media;
(f) She should go out and walk in the fresh air; and/or
(g) Tell Sally she is partially at fault for not stating that their conversation should be confidential.
The best answer is (a) and it should be the first thing to do. Another answer is (c) because it is good practice when a big guilt issue arises. The fact that Helen is constantly on social media indicates that she needs to work on her self-esteem. That indicates that the answer (e) is a good solution for other reasons. Answer (f) is always a good thing to do regardless of any guilt issues.
Answer (b) is correct for any monetary damages because there is no causation. But it is incorrect relative to her breach of confidence to Sally and the embarrassment it caused. Answer (d) is not applicable as hypnosis is unproven when it comes to guilt. It might be grounds for the False Negative Thoughts Department to send the messages, “See I told you there’s something wrong with you.” Answer (g) indicates an attempt to justify Helen’s actions. Confidence is implied in all sensitive conversations. It will likely increase the amount of Helen’s guilt by implying a breach of trust is okay between friends.
Moderately Difficult Exercises
Moderate Exercise 1. Wilma is a 35 year old mother in a happy marriage. She went shopping with her best friend, Teresa, at an expensive clothing store. Teresa is wealthy and has a B-type personality. Wilma had an eye for color coordination. Teresa tried on various dresses, and voiced her opinion that it looked good on her. Wilma would smile but say nothing. But, inside Wilma would cringe because the colors did not go well with Teresa’s hair and skin tones. Wilma felt guilty that she was being dishonest in her answers. How do you reduce Wilma’s guilt.
Potential Answers to Moderate Exercise 1.
(a) Wilma should apologize to Teresa for violating her trust and friendship by not telling Teresa how she felt; and she should ask for forgiveness;
(b) Wilma should not apologize because her guilt was based on a false negative thought.
(c) Wilma should seek the help from a professional psychologist;
(d) She should seek out the help of a hypnotist for help;
(e) Wilma should analyze her feelings of guilt and identify her feelings as a false negative thought. She should wait until she is alone and then smile and/or do a little dance as a reward for spotting a false negative thought.
(f) Wilma should realize that Teresa was a Type B Personality and that friends should be kind but honest in their answers to questions.
(g) Wilma should forget the incident as it was too small to be of concern.
The best answers are (e), (b), and (f). Answer (e) is the best answer. Spotting a false negative thought is important and celebrating the discovery of those thoughts is fantastic. It will help in reducing guilt that may (will) arise in the future from false negative thoughts. Answer (b) is correct in that you do not apologize for a false negative thought. Wilma did not make a false statement. On the other hand, the smile might qualify as a tacit approval. That is the reason this answer in in second place. Answer (f) is a good answer. Most Type B personalities want their friends to be honest with tough questions. However, since there is no indication that Wilma knew that Teresa was a Type B Personality; this places this answer in third place.
Answer (a) is not correct since one does not have to apologize for false negative thoughts. It might raise the question in Teresa’s mind that there might be something deeper behind the apology. Answers (c) and (d) do not apply without knowing more facts. If Wilma goes home and cries for hours it may suggest a significant problem that might approach a phobia, which would require professional help. Answer (g) might be an appropriate response if the guilt is minor or passing. However the fact that she experienced guilt indicates Wilma thought the incident was improper.
Hard and Difficult Exercises
Hard Exercise 1. An ambulance arrives at a real automobile accident scene involving multiple high school students. Paul, an EMT is unable to revive one of the students. He feels guilty believing that he did not stop the bleeding in time. That night he had nightmares of the incident. What answer appears to be the best solution for Paul.
Potential Answers to Hard Exercise 1.
(a) Paul should do nothing since his guilt is due to a False Negative Thought;
(b) He should contact a professional and seek advice as soon as possible.
(c) He should write down everything he could have done differently and contact the parents to apologize.
(d) He should go out and walk in the fresh air;
(e) He should block out everything he can about the accident from his mind, or
(f) He should get drunk to relieve his emotional pain.
This is an enormously emotional and tragic event. The best answer is (b) he should seek professional help as soon as possible. Answer (d) is appropriate for all kinds of reasons, but not great solution in reducing guilt.
Answer (a) is not appropriate because False Negative Thoughts can cause unbearable guilt. Although the accident is a true event, the guilt feelings that Paul had about not do everything he could, is a classic False Negative Thought. Answer (c) is not appropriate. Writing down everything he saw and did is probably one of his job requirements. Writing down everything he thinks he could have done differently would be inappropriate. Apologizing to the parents for not doing enough to save their child’s life is apologizing for a false negative thought. That would likely be contrary to his job duties and may result in him being fired.
Answer (d) may be counter-productive unless a professional believes otherwise. Finally answer (f) does not address the problem and likely aggravates the situation.
Hard Exercise 2. George had a falling out with his mother, Diane, over marrying his high school drop-out and drug-using girl-friend, Marla. They had a child, William, who was a straight A student. Diane was imprisoned on selling drugs, resulting in a divorce. George had not talked to his mother for 20 years and received notice that she was on her death bed. He loved his mother but could not forgive her for not accepting Diane into the family. He felt that it caused Diane to sell drugs and broke up their marriage. George feels guilty that he has kept William away from his grandmother. What should George Do?
Potential Answers to Hard Exercise 2.
(a) George should contact a professional and seek advice as soon as possible.
(b) George should list all of the reasons why keeping William away from Diane was wrong, list all of the damages and hurt that it caused, prepare an apology and meet with Diane as soon as possible and ask for her forgiveness;
(c) He should meet with Diane and tell her that he’s sorry. He should then ask what he can do to correct things between them;
(d) He should ignore Dianne and go on with his life.
(e) He should agree to meet with Dianne as soon as possible provided she apologies to Marla;
(f) He should take whatever steps he can to understand why he married Marla and became so angry with his mother for not approving of the marriage.
The best answer is (a) followed by (b) and then (f). All of these steps should be undertaken for multiple reasons. When Diane dies, George will likely suffer major psychological problems. It may be severe if he does not release his anger and guilt. He needs to understand why he could not see what his mother saw relative to Marla. The facts given in the example are clear that Diane loved George and wanted him to be happy. That is obvious. George’s extreme action relative to William does not make sense. As such, there is likely a deeper problem that existed with his mother prior to Marla. That would be a good reason to bring in a professional. George also needs to understand why he married Marla. There appears to be far more problems than guilt.
Answer (c) is not appropriate since the emotions and damages are too great to be the subject of a negotiated forgiveness. Ignoring the problem as suggested by Answer (d) is not appropriate. Answer (e) is not appropriate under the facts given in the example.