Special note: guilt is unique in that, even though it can seem like a Now-Next problem, it's fundamentally a Oneself-Others problem. That is why I have included undoing guilt both in the NNI toolkit and the OOI toolkit.
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.
There is, in fact, a function 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).
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..." if I 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.