Has guilt ever played a role in your life? I sort of laugh, even as I write the question, because, in our culture, of course guilt plays a role, at least from time to time.
Our parents used it; our teachers used it; our best friends even used it; we used it. Guilt can be a strong motivator. It can keep us on the straight and narrow, which at one time was a description of the preferred mode of conduct.
Actually, using guilt is an attempt to control others. Our mothers and teachers were hoping to control some behavior of ours that they felt was undesirable. Same with our best friends. And the same with us. If we use guilt against other people, we’re trying to control their behavior.
Guilt can also be a very subtle thing. As we grow and mature, we can become more refined in our use of guilt. No one would hardly even notice that it’s there, except that something doesn’t feel quite right; something’s not quite happy.
So we can watch ourselves; we can pay attention to the instances that trigger our use of guilt. We can step back from those instances that trigger our use of guilt, detach ourselves somewhat, and observe. What triggered it? What were we trying to accomplish? Why did we feel hindered so that we couldn’t be open and honest?
Then we can change.
So it is possible to practice introspection and shift that habit of using guilt in order to control someone else’s behavior. That one’s not quite so hard to detect and correct.
Then there’s the other side of the coin. What do we do when we feel guilty? It might be that someone is using guilt against us, and that’s oftentimes easier to detect. When something is detectable, it is changeable. We can come up with action plans to counteract someone laying a guilt trip on us. Avoid that person. Laugh it off. Bring the underlying issues out into the open. Trial and error. What works with that particular person, to change the interaction into something more positive? It can be a slow process, but if the relationship is worth it, we can shift things for the better.
But the more insidious strain of guilt is the kind that exists only in our own head. It’s the guilt that we set down upon ourselves and carry around with us. Oftentimes, we carry it around continuously, and add stuff to it as we move through our day. It can get pretty big and unwieldy, like a big gunny sack filled with squash, clumbering around, using up our energy, encumbering even the smallest aspiration. We probably don’t know that we’re doing it or how to stop.
But here’s the clue that can help us dump out all those squash and either make something delicious out of them or put them on the compost heap: guilt is not one of the eight manifestations of the divine.
I love the eight manifestations of the divine. They offer a powerful guideline of how to live a life that takes you where you want to go. When we are working with love or joy, calmness or wisdom, light or sound, power or peace, we are moving toward a divine signal. When we are working with anger or hate, regret or guilt, we are moving away from the signal. Said another way, guilt is not a reliable guide.
Shifting Away from Guilt
When I feel guilty, I see if I can shift the thought, slightly, to something more comfortable, something that gives me a sense of relief.
“I can’t believe that I ate another peanut butter cookie! Well, I ate fewer today than I ate yesterday. It’s hard for me to resist them, once they’re in the house. But it’s not hard to resist them on the grocer’s shelf. That’s where I’ll focus my self-control next time; I just won’t bring them home next time.”
I’ve shifted the energy from guilt toward power, with a bit of wisdom thrown in. I’ve come up with an action plan that is realistic and gives me confidence, because I know that it’s true: I really can resist them on the grocer’s shelf, so this really will work. My heart has a little hum of joy, and I’m standing on solid ground.
Guilt and Its Buddy, Regret
When regret partners up with guilt, it can really sink in its claws. “I shouldn’t have said that to my mother 47 years ago, because now I can’t take it back.” Regret mixed with guilt prompts me to guide my thoughts away from what I said or did all those years ago. Because nothing can be done to erase it. More importantly, every time I think about it, adding specific details and memorable nuances to make the guilt even more exquisite, I give it energy and keep it vibrant in my memory banks.
So “I won’t think about that now; I’ll think about that tomorrow” becomes wisdom from the most unlikely source, our scheming heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. Distancing yourself helps. Cutting the energy threads between you and the thing that you wish you had not done allows it to float away. Shifting your thoughts toward an improvement next time, moves a particularly rotten squash out of your gunny sack and onto the compost heap, where it can go on to a more productive phase, a learning phase.
Replace Guilt with Honest Introspection
And here’s a powerful one: Living in community gives you plenty of second chances. If you’ve lost your temper, or put your foot in your mouth, or laughed at the wrong moment, you’re going to see those people again. You’re going to be in that same situation with many of the same people. You’re going to have a chance to do it better next time.
Living in an intentional community gives you the opportunity to improve your bad habits, but there’s something more important that makes those second chances carry power. Living in community means that you’re surrounded by like-minded people. The person sitting next to you, standing in line in front of you, eating dinner across from you, is trying to improve him- or herself just as much as you are. Your neighbors carry the same beliefs about karma and moving in the right direction whenever possible. They practice self‑honesty and introspection, a willingness to help, a tendency toward generosity and forgiveness.
So even if you said the wrong thing to your mother 47 years ago, you have the chance to say the right thing now, sitting with your friends over dinner. And if you don’t get it right today, you’ll have another opportunity tomorrow. As long as you’re sincere and you work hard at moving in the right direction, you’ll get there. You won’t need guilt to succeed in bettering yourself. You have community.