Dealing with guilt

The ability to process guilt is an important self-guidance system. Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash


Guilt is the uncomfortable feeling that accompanies conflict between our actions and our values.  If we always acted in accordance with our values, we wouldn’t feel guilty.  Guilt can arise because of life’s complexity – for instance, by following one value, we can act against another value.  An example would be standing up for ourselves: in morally defending our own rights, we may cause suffering to others.


Guilt is the result of a good internal system.  It’s nice that we have a way of constantly challenging our own actions.  If we didn’t have guilt, we would never have the ability to moderate our actions to fit in with any rules.  Imagine a person incapable of feeling guilt.  Like a person who didn’t feel pain, and so burned themselves, they would go from situation to situation burning themselves, and others, with their own actions.  Or like an unguided missile, they would fire themselves at situations without the ability to plan and strategise.


Guilt is intimately linked to two things – reflexivity, and the ability to strategise.  The mind needs to be able to assess its own behaviour (to reflect), and then to decide if that behaviour fits the continuous plan (to strategise).  Guilt is, if you like, the cognitive alarm system that tells the mind when one’s own behaviour is departing from a value-based plan.  It is the inner voice that says: ‘I have assessed myself today, and I didn’t behave as I could have done.’


What happens to those who can’t experience or process guilt?  Those who can’t experience guilt at all are incapable of change.  They are quite easy to spot, because self-challenge is absent from their conversation.  There is no watching mind reflecting on their own behaviour, and there will be a kind of void whenever a conversation is started about their actions.  The moral conversation will be hollow, because there is nothing to talk about.  They are not used to describing themselves to themselves.  They just do what they do, and they rarely welcome talking about it.


Those who experience guilt, but can’t process it, are more complex.  They may exhibit all sorts of symptoms of distress, such as anxiety, depression or anger.  This is because they feel the first pain of self-challenge, but then don’t know what to do with it.  The processing of guilt involves being open with oneself about one’s own values, and an honest assessment of one’s own behaviour in relation to them.  If we can’t be open with ourselves, then we seek refuge in distortion of the truth.  We either blame others for our own guilt (projection), or we claim to be confused by our feelings.


In this way, those who can’t process their own guilt can often be spotted by their anger, or by their confusion.  The angry process goes like this:

  1. We experience an unnamed discomfort in response to how we are living.
  2. We cannot bear to challenge and change our own behaviour.
  3. To avoid self-challenge, we find a scapegoat, and throw anger at them instead.

The confused process goes like this:

  1. We experience an unnamed discomfort in response to how we are living.
  2. We cannot bear to challenge and change our own behaviour.
  3. To avoid self-challenge, we protest that life has suddenly got impossible to understand.

We can detect these distorted processes through conversation.  People doing this will either be full of blame directed at others for their situation, or they will constantly insist that they don’t understand why they have ended up as they have.


Am I allowing my inner ‘guilt module’ to function?  Am I learning from self-reflection?

When I experience discomfort, do I take the time to reflect on my own actions, and how they might be causing me a sense of conflict or discomfort?

Am I being lazy, and avoiding self-challenge?  Do I blame others instead?  Or do I simply say I am ‘confused’, without trying to think any further?

What personal values might I be ignoring?  How am I failing to live up to my own standards?

The next time I feel discomfort, can I have the courage to stop and reflect, to challenge myself honestly, and then to strategise (to realign my actions so that they fit my plans better)?

If I can’t do this, then I may be destined to repeat my own mistakes.

But if I can feel the guilt, and process it, then I may be able to learn and change.