Instinct-based living of lower beings does not offer much scope for guilt. Human beings are different. With the development of brain and the consequent development of mind, we shed away a lot of instincts and shaped ourselves up into the thinking, feeling, speaking and emoting beings that we are.
Instinctual living is more or less free of emotions. Guilt too has no place in it. With this, for the lower beings, living in the "here and now", taking life the way it comes to them, is possible. The "developed" human beings, on the other hand, get into the tangles of emotions, the rights and the wrongs, the dos and the don'ts, empathy and sympathy etc. The net result is that during the process of human development, the natural ability to live life the way it is possible has got lost and we became calculating, cautious, manipulating and guilt-ridden.
Guilt is a "thinking and feeling" experience that occurs when one "realises" or perceives logically or otherwise that he or she has violated a moral standard and feels responsible for such a violation. It leads to regret, remorse or even shame. "Realisation" as mentioned above is subjective just like perception because there is nothing called a perfect reality. This takes us to the dichotomy of guilt - even while it seems to be real, it is undoubtedly a product of subjective perception. It becomes all the more glaring when the moral standard that is being perceived to have been violated are actually imposed ones, - by parents, teachers, society, community, locality or social groups.
Guilt destroys peace of mind. It eclipses our ability to enjoy naturally available pleasures in life's activities. This leads a guilt-ridden person to depression, anxiety or frustration. Guilt is a dominating and at times debilitating feeling that one has done something that he / she should not have done. This leads to a conflict within. Going by the Freudian Psychology route, this conflict can be explained as between ego (the mature, logical, rational and practical side of our inner personality) and superego (that side of our inner self which is composed of internalised ideals, rules, rights, wrongs, dos and don'ts, acquired from our parents, teachers and society).
Psychopaths and people having disorders like that of anti-social personality mostly lack guilt and the connected remorse. Empathy, our ability to think being in the other person's shoes, if in excess, too can drive us into guilt. It may make the person feeling guilty believe that he / she has harmed someone, whereas for that "someone", the situation may be normal and usual.
Some psychological theories state that most activities of life converge onto aggression and libido. While aggression helps us in the struggle for existence (and to dominate, to defeat, to succeed etc.), libido (survival, pleasure and sexual instincts) is nature's way of ensuring procreation and progression of species. Many of the feelings of guilt emanate from activities involving aggression and libido. In this, guilt emerging from sexual instincts has its root in the social conditioning of human species during its evolution. It is a fact that most societies treat sexual matters as taboo which results in suppression of natural sexual instincts. Maslow's theory of Hierarchy of Needs places sex among the very basic physiological needs along with food, oxygen, water and sleep. However, the way society treats it and conditions human minds to view it with guilt deprives many people of the ability to deal with this instinct rationally. The resultant guilt has always added agony into human living.
The core aspect of guilt is violation or perceived violation of a moral standard. Interestingly, there can also be situations of guilt of not violating it which can be termed as "reverse guilt". An example to this can be of a mother who feels guilty of going to work leaving the child home alone and pampering him / her excessively to compensate for the "violation" of the moral standard of a mother being responsible for taking care of the child, when she returns. Let us say, the child grows up as irresponsible and deviant due to this. At this she may feel guilty of ruining the child's life with excessive pampering, thus generating the "reverse guilt".
Feeling guilty after getting caught / exposed is another form of guilt. In this, it surfaces only when caught or exposed. Till then the violation of the moral standard was considered fine. The cases of many intimate and secret relationships, bribery etc. fall into this category.
Many social groups (religious included) have overtly or covertly used guilt as a tool to maintain suitable social order. Attaching sin or moral standards to many basic human needs and making the group members feel guilty if they violated the same have helped in coaxing them to follow the pattern of social behaviour perceived by the norms of such groups as correct has been in practice for centuries.
Punishment and guilt go hand in hand. Many people suffering the pangs of guilt will use self-punishment as a tool to manage it. Such punishments can be from sacrificing natural pleasures of life to committing suicide. Guilt blinds and makes people think illogically, resulting in self-harms. Guilt can be obsessive and can linger on with an irrational urge to punish oneself mentally, emotionally and physically. Psychoanalysis has shown that such unconscious acts can even lead to serious psychosomatic illnesses.
Some people are obsessed with guilt. They carry guilt with them perpetually and work things backwards from situations to feel guilty. For them, guilt will stand out one after the other like the way the next tissue paper stands out when you pull each one out of its box. Such people, while keeping themselves unhappy perpetually, also tend to keep people close to them under the wrap of guilt and shame.
Guilt can take monstrous shapes and ruin human minds and lives. As mentioned earlier, guilt has its roots in personal perceptions and the way we view the situation. Guilt is also about the past. The past is history and changing history is impossible. With this, the need is for handling guilt in the most logical and rational way, ensuring the least self-harm.
Seeking forgiveness from the concerned person (or the concerned group of people) may seem to be a remedy to curb the pain of guilt. But, while it may work in some cases, demanding this in some other cases may result in complicating the matter further. Opening a Pandora's Box and seeking forgiveness out of a disproportionate sense of guilt may actually result in compounding an otherwise harmless situation and bringing about permanent damages.
Another tool people use to manage guilt it is compensation. A person taking bribe and donating a part of it to god-men in the hope that they will ensure elimination of the ill-effects of bribery in the person's is compensation. Even the over-pampering of the child by the working mother as mentioned above is compensation.
Repentance is good in guilt management. But excessive, obsessive and irrational repentance is harmful. Some people feeling guilty may seek punishment unconsciously because they believe in the dictum that the guilty should be punished.
Intellectualisation or cognitive explanation of the guilt-producing situation is a relatively effective tool to handle guilt. As a consequence of this exercise, if the person gathers an understanding that the source of his / her guilt is own irrational perception, it may relieve him / her of the pain of guilt.
Some logical questions that can be asked to oneself during the guilt management exercise are as under:
- Is the situation really worth the guilt or am I simply perceiving it to be so?
- Did I snatch away the legitimate right of well-being of someone by my guilt producing act?
- Would I have done natural justice to myself had I not done what I have done, even if it is making me feel guilty now?
- Wouldn't most sensible people have done what I did under the given circumstances?
- Am I really required to sacrifice my basic feeling of well-being for the comforts and happiness of others, just because I feel guilty?
- Would my not doing what I did have added to the well-being of the concerned others?
- Am I the only one responsible for what I did?
- Is my feeling of guilt rational under the given circumstances?
- Will what I did make me feel guilty the way I am feeling now, even after the passage of some time?
- By feeling guilty and ashamed, am I paying the price of my urge to be socially correct and endearing, even if the society's expectations from me are too irrational?
Like in many other situations, time can be a big healer of guilt. Avoid awarding self-punishments and move on. Time will initiate the healing process. Life is short but beautiful. We need to live it in its full size within the framework of available personal freedom. Let guilt not destroy our natural and legitimate rights to lead a wholesome life, because we deserve the life that nature has given us.