We have all behaved in ways that were less than ideal, and we have all experienced the bitter taste of guilt. But is guilt inevitable, or is there a better way-other than having no conscience?
Fortunately, there is a healthy alternative: remorse. There is a very big difference between guilt and remorse. Guilt is a toxic feeling that is never appropriate whereas remorse is a healthy, appropriate feeling that is important to feel at times.
Guilt causes an unpleasant tightness in the body and can be paralyzing. Even though a person may not be thinking it, she is feeling like a bad person when there is guilt. That is why a lack of calmness is experienced when there is guilt.
Sometimes guilt arises in association with some action or inaction, or because of a feeling that the person is self-judging as bad. Sometimes the person has indeed done something wrong, such as lying. At other times the person is entirely innocent, as in the case of survivor guilt, when for example one survives an accident when a loved one doesn’t. Another example of an innocent person feeling guilt is while experiencing pleasure in the period after a relative has died.
It is important to separate one’s self from one’s actions and feelings, allowing one to still know that she is a good person, and that the negative behavior or feeling arose due to being human and imperfect, and was subject to conditioning by the past, circumstances, and culture. This does not mean that a person is not accountable and responsible for her behavior. She is, and needs to deal with the consequences of her behavior. It just does not mean that she is inherently a bad person. All good people with good intentions do bad things at times.
And that’s when it’s appropriate to feel remorse, a sadness for having hurt someone and a wishing that one had behaved differently. There can also be a sense of having let one’s self down. Unlike guilt, with remorse there is no tension in the body. Instead, there tends to be some heaviness to correspond with the sadness of having caused some harm through one’s action or inaction. One remains calm with remorse. One is differentiating between one’s self and one’s caring on the one hand, and one’s bad behavior for which one is sorry on the other.
Guilt leads to a lot of suffering. As well, it can tend to lead to denial or defensiveness, and a lack of acknowledging, apologizing, or taking rectifying action. For example, for the person who eats too much ice cream, guilt often makes her eat even more in an effort to soothe the guilt. The person who got angry and feels guilty is more likely to be led by the guilt, at an unconscious level, to be defensive. As guilt is based on the lie that we are bad, it is never trustworthy. Leading to nothing good, it is a useless emotion.
Remorse, on the other hand, is based on the truth that a good person has behaved badly and is feeling sad about it. It is much more likely to lead to acknowledgement, empathy for those wounded, and apology. Because it is not paralyzing, it is more likely to lead to corrective action. For example, the person who ate too much ice cream who feels remorse is more likely to feel compassion for herself, and resume her healthy eating habits sooner. The person who got angry who is feeling remorse is more likely to acknowledge her anger and apologize. Some kids in our neighborhood who did some vandalism voluntarily engaged in a day’s worth of yard work out of remorse, as well as paying for the damage caused.
In summary, remorse is based on the truth of one’s inherent goodness, feels much better than guilt, and is much more likely to lead to better behavior. Unlike guilt, one can feel remorse while grounded. So any time you catch yourself feeling guilty, shift into remorse, and then take whatever appropriate action is called for.