(and self-criticism, shame, regret, or remorse)
Prerequisite: undoing fear
Guilt is a strange beast. Why do we feel guilty?
Sometimes we may think that guilt keeps us from doing “bad things.” Certainly that could be true in some cases. But, at what cost? And do we need guilt in order to keep ourselves from doing “bad things.” The answer is no. In fact, guilt most often perpetuates costly behavior because it diminishes our resourcefulness and it makes us feel like we've "paid (or will pay) for our sins," so it's okay to do it again.
Costs of guilt
Guilt can make us avoid making a request that would be best to make.
Guilt can make us avoid saying "no" when it's needed to take care of ourselves.
Guilt can make us avoid setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries with others.
Guilt (or projected guilt) can make us march into war, being willing to kill and be killed to prove our loyalty to our country.
Guilt can make us indulge even more in a costly behavior because "we're already dirty."
Guilt can suppress our willingness to be honest, open, and self-expressed.
Guilt can sap our energy and our feeling of resourcefulness.
Guilt can interfere with out ability to assess clearly the costs, benefits, risks, and possibilities of a given issue.
Guilt makes it difficult to create Now-Next integrity.
Guilt makes it difficult to create Oneself-Others integrity.
Guilt makes it difficult to communicate with someone you think you "did something to" or you suspect is blaming you for something.
Guilt makes it hard to create and live into a fresh new life.
Guilt makes it difficult to choose divorce even when it's obviously the best choice.
Guilt makes it difficult to give up even when it's the very reasonable thing to do.
Guilt or the potential of guilt makes it difficult to live a life true to ourselves.
Guilt feels bad.
There is, in fact, a function (benefit) that guilt serves, a benefit that few people suspect.
Guilt is an attempt to do away with fear, it is resistance to fear. Consequently, if you remove that resistance, the guilt will disappear. But what is that fear? Unlike worry (which is also a resistance to fear), guilt doesn't feel like fear.
Guilt about not helping his brother
To illustrate how this works, let’s consider one of my clients who refused to take in his drug-and-alcohol addicted brother, even though his brother begged him to help him out by letting him live in my client's home. Shortly after that, his brother killed himself. My client felt deeply guilty, even though he still knew that he could not have allowed his brother to live with him. Let's call my client Tim and his brother will be John.
How guilt (and shame) is a resistance to fear
I said to Tim, “Let’s create an imaginary world. In this world, everyone will know about your brother John and your relationship and history with him. They will know all your intimate thoughts about the difficulty you had in making the decision to turn your brother away. In this imaginary world, even your brother John, observing you now from wherever he is, can also know all this. And in this world, you surely and totally know that everyone, including your brother John, including your parents, including your other siblings, including all your friends, are so amazed and admiring of you for the choice you made in turning your brother away. Everyone is clear that, given what you knew at that time, your choice was the absolute best. Be fully present to this world. In this world, Tim, would you feel guilty about refusing to let your brother John stay in your home?"
His immediate response was, “no.”
I have taken hundreds of clients who felt guilty about something into this imaginary world and the results are always the same...no one feels guilty after stepping into this world.
"Look everybody, I'm beating myself up first; it shows that I'm not such a bad guy."
This leads us to understand the function of guilt. We are beating others to the punch by blaming ourselves first: “Look everybody, I’m already feeling bad about this. You don’t have to blame me so much, I'm already doing it to myself.” We get to feel a bit safer and more in control because we beat others to the punch in criticizing ourselves. From this, you can now see how self blame is an attempt to feel safer. All of us have an intuitive grasp of who everyone will blame more: the bad guy who feels no remorse or the better guy who feels guilty about what she or he did. Therefore, we're quick to blame ourselves and become the better guy and hopefully escape some of the anticipated criticism from others (only if it's just in our heads).
Which prisoner is beyond hope?
Consider this question. You know of two inmates spending time in a penitentiary, both of whom committed similarly heinous crimes. The first inmate feels profoundly guilty and remorseful for what he did. The second inmate feels no guilt and no remorse for his actions. Which of these two would you think is "not so bad," at least in comparison to the other one?
If you're like at least 98% of the people I've asked this question, you'll say that the first inmate is not as bad as the second one. We consider guilt (for behavior we ourselves consider to be bad) to be a valid expression of being a decent human being.
The officials on a parole board, whose job is to decide if a prisoner might be granted parole, takes whether the prisoner feels guilty and remorseful as a (positive) factor in their decision process.
This leads us to understand how to undo guilt.
Tim used undoing fear with the sentence, “Holy cats and jeepers creepers, I am so scared others are blaming me for turning my brother away, maybe causing him to kill himself!”
Tim screamed this out several times, with me listening (I recommend up to eleven times, if needed)...breathing deeply, shouting loudly, using a wacky, silly voice. It took nine times before all his guilt disappeared.
Since that session when we first disappeared his guilt, Tim told me he had to revisit the process a few times whenever a bit of his guilt returned.
A world without guilt? Would that be a good thing?
To claim that there are never any circumstances in which guilt doesn't serve some good result would be over reaching. However, as a widely applicable heuristic, we will live more fulfilling lives and treat others much better if we have made friends with any fears that others either are or may blame use (thereby dissolving our guilt).
Whenever we blame ourselves (creating guilt), we blind ourselves to getting clear about and acting prudently regarding the costs, benefits, risks, and possibilities associated with various courses of action open to us, both short term and long term. Whenever self-blame is part of the formula, we are much more likely to act so as to create bigger costs and risks (both for ourselves and others) than we otherwise might have been able to avoid. Guilt is also likely to cause us to give up benefits (both for ourselves and others) than we might otherwise have been able to get.
Another cost of self-blame is that we use it to justify blaming others, in our attempt to control others, trying to alleviate our fear associated with their behavior or possible behavior. Just as self-blame is costly and often counter-productive, so is our criticism and blame of others. I have always found that choosing courage to create a partnership attitude with others and/or creating and maintaining good boundaries with them is always more effective than criticism. If necessary, with a partnership attitude, I can always point out any problematic behavior in a non-blame way.
A personal note
I've felt a lot of guilt in my life, not the least of which was feeling guilty for masturbating. This continued from age 11 until I was 20, when I finally got clear about it being a healthy, enjoyable activity to be proud of.
Today, I feel no guilt about anything, even though some important people in my life occasionally blame me for some of my behaviors or beliefs. I'm able to remain guilt-free because I do the "Holy cats..." whenever I might feel any incipient guilt. Nor do I blame others for blaming me. I have compassion both for myself and for them.
Moreover, because of my lack of guilt, I feel more good will and understanding for others than I did previously in my life when I felt guilty. I am naturally more generous and considerate with everyone in my life.
Audio of taking a Chinese student through "undoing guilt"
Here's an audio dialogue to demonstrate undoing guilt (Note: the Chinese student is using the Chinese word "maya," meaning "Oh, my God!" instead of the English "Holly cats and jeepers creepers.")