Good old-fashioned guilt

I don’t “do” guilt the way you & your brother do.  Sure, I’ve experienced it; but it’s just not a lifestyle choice for me.

Someone once said this to me and I thought it was pretty funny. And while I vaguely recognised myself in the accusation, I was more interested in the main point being made — that guilt might be optional.

Like all emotions guilt has an evolutionary purpose. Guilt is the cloak of our conscience and without one we’d be unable to construct moral codes and the societies, governments and laws that require them.

Guilt refers to the sense (real or imagined) that we’ve done something wrong. And that we feel bad about it.

Going back to the Feeling Wheel, I was initially surprised to see that guilt is a shade of sadness. I get that a sadness lurks under guilt, but I’ve always associated it more with fear, with anxiety and with weird circular thinking.

I’m talking about personal guilt. Not the legal kind or even the social kind (where we break or fear we have broken a social norm.) The personal variety stems from violating our own standard. I think that’s why it’s so much more prevalent — because left to our own devices, many of us build up hard-to-live-by expectations of ourselves. (Which we eventually blame on our parents!)

Speaking of parents, there’s another kind of guilt that gets muddled up between social and personal guilt. It’s terrifically vague and ghost-like in the way it moves about. I call it Ancestral Guilt — I’m referring to middle class guilt, and the white middle class kind, Catholic guilt and the Irish Catholic kind, Jewish guilt (which while more neurotic than most, is also loads funnier — see for example this definition of a Jewish Guilt Trip) — and while there may be fractions of this guilt that stem from our own actions, most of it is inherited from what others have done or worry they’ve done or have been accused of doing.

There’s probably more branches of this sort of guilt than I’ve named, but these are the ones I know. These culturally ingrained social guilts trigger deep down personal guilt that’s often difficult for us to pin point but is present nonetheless, walking around with us, however quietly.

For years psychotherapists have argued this — that we carry the guilt of our ancestors. I’m sure a bunch of geneticists are somewhere right now hunting for biological proof to back this up. If we can pass on our intelligence and even our sense of humour, why not guilt?

This is the subject of this weekend’s blog — the phenomena of guilt. Stay tuned, unless you have better things to do and have absolutely nothing to feel bad about … in which case, don’t mind me — just go ahead and enjoy yourself.

Everyone else — see you tomorrow!



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5 responses to “Good old-fashioned guilt

  1. The main kind of guilt I experience is pretty much a cliché. It’s the whole “I’m responsible for the behaviour and problems of the adults and other siblings that I grew up with.

    The standard “broken home” guilt, although my home wasn’t broken, it was cracked.

    I also have a lot of “survivor” guilt. I left my sister to a hard teenage life without me when I went away to university. The working class communities I socialised in are not ones I visit often.

    And then there’s the constant guilt about things I’ve said or done. Years afterwards. I don’t seem to be good at forming avoiding cognitive dissonance.

    All of the guilts have grown smaller over time as I’ve learnt to manage them, understand them and try and control or manipulate them.

    Interestingly I now wonder if the guilt I feel is less nurture and more nature. If, as you say, it is passed on to me genetically. My mother struggles with the same kind of guilts (and the flipside of them which is accusatory rage towards the world.) I recorded 3 conversations with her for GBA and the last one was about this kind of area. And in many ways it really helped me to stop feeling as guilty. Or at least to feel guilt less intensely.

    I mis-wrote something in an email recently and it upset someone. It wasn’t what I meant to write and it was easy to see why it would have been interpreted badly. In the past this would have made me consumed with guilt. Which would have resulted in weeks of depression and possibly even misjudged conflict with the victim of my bad wordsmithery. Instead I apologised and moved on. Sure I still think about it obsessively. But its more about how I wish I’d communicated to the person what I’d meant because I think what I was saying was worthwhile and helpful. Rather than thinking “I am a terrible person” on a horrible feedback loop.

    It is strange that I have often felt as cut up by trivial guilts like a miswritten email as I have felt for large guilts related to terrible behaviours.

    These days my attitude tends towards understanding and forgiveness of myself and others. We’re all just trying to get through life. I hope to learn to do less things worthy of making me feel guilty. And also to feel less guilt when I do fuck up!

  2. nathaliehourihan

    Right! So you know what I;m talking about when I talk about guilt. Many of the people I know who tend to being guilt-ridden are also quite compassionate people so I think the trick is to turn that compassion inwards. Imagine a friend, or even better a young child, feeling sad and bad about a real or not-so-real transgression, what advice might you give them to address it and let it pass? That’s what we should do for ourselves. Most especially because I do think that guilt tendencies come from the little kid in us. Of the kind that I think we’re discussing — not the sort of guilt that has huge social value

  3. Yeah, I agree. You don’t have to love yourself but you have to treat yourself as you would treat someone else! Try and understand and forgive your own flaws as you might try to do for someone else!

    I’m interested to hear about the social value of guilt.

  4. Fred

    Given that I am about to embark on a weekend of drunken debauchery and that I have a shed load of things that I should be doing before leaving for a 10 day break, I think I may pass on the study and origins of guilt!

  5. nathaliehourihan

    10 day break?! I have not been informed of this. Trust me, Fred – you will feel so much better after a weekend of Considering Guilt Properly that you’ll have a much more relaxing break. Having said that, you’re not exactly the 1st person on my list of those who would let guilt get in the way of a good lie-down

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