This week – a word about guilt. Yeah, that should keep everybody reading…
Most of us know the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is believing you’ve done something bad. Shame is believing you are bad. Guilt can be good. Shame is never good. There are also guilt-based and shame-based cultures. In a guilt-based culture, there is no greater moral failure than violating your own conscience. In a shame-based culture, there is no greater moral failure than losing face. America has always been primarily a guilt-based culture, though of late we see shame-based ideas gaining strength in ways I find disturbing. At the moment, however, we remain a culture in which the greatest moral failure is to violate your own conscience.
With that in mind, I want to look at the three different types of guilt. Guilt as responsibility is the kind of guilt with which we are best acquainted. Guilt as responsibility is recognizing that I have done something wrong that brings harm to another. After recognition, it is my responsibility, where possible, to make restitution. After recognition and restitution, I am released from my guilt. Most of us have plenty of experience with guilt as responsibility. We live it on a regular basis, maybe even this week. Not that I am confessing to any specific guilt-producing failings in the last day or two, mind you.
A second type of guilt is pseudo-guilt or false guilt. False guilt is what you feel when you establish a healthy boundary for yourself but feel badly about it. For reasons buried in your childhood, you do not think you have the right to meet your own needs before meeting the needs of another.
I used to have a friend who was constantly asking me to set aside my own needs to meet his needs. Much to the chagrin of Cathy, my wife, I always readily complied. When you do not think you have permission to take care of yourself, you acquiesce to the needs of others. Unfortunately, when you do that, someone close to you will pay a price, and it will usually be the person or people with whom you feel the most secure. Most often, it will be your spouse. You take advantage of the person who loves you most so you can meet the needs of another in whose love you are not secure. And you do it all because if you dare say no, you’ll feel guilty about it.
Most of us were taught to be polite rather than honest, accommodating rather than self-protective, and submissive rather than assertive. To be anything else makes us feel guilty. False guilt is a defense against the deeper anxiety of not feeling permission to be yourself. The solution is to give yourself to permission to establish boundaries that protect you. You cannot love your neighbor if you do not first love yourself.
The third kind of guilt is existential guilt. This is the kind of guilt Nikos Kazantzakis was talking about when he said, “By the time you’re 50, you have the face you deserve.” Existential guilt involves recognition of wrongdoing, but without restitution or release.
I make my living speaking. For as long as the market smiles on me, I am paid handsomely to speak at corporations, conferences, and universities. Speaking is one of my gifts. But we all have shadow sides, and our shadow sides are usually our strengths taken to an extreme. Therefore, reflecting on a conversation I have just completed, I will sometimes think, “Paula, it would have been all right to have an unexpressed thought.” I think out loud, and my unedited thoughts are not always helpful to the people with whom I am speaking. Talking, when it would have been better to keep my mouth shut, is one of my shadow sides.
For as long as our strengths are with us, our shadow sides will be along for the ride. They are a part of the fabric of our being. The best we can do is recognize and name these shadow sides. Making restitution is difficult, and there is no release from the existential guilt of knowing that try as we might, we will never be able to undo all the pain we have brought into this world. The best we can hope for is that the recognition itself will enable us to keep those parts of ourselves under wraps a little more often.
The older I become, the more my shadow sides become known to me. The more my shadow sides become known to me, the more existential guilt I feel. I have discovered there is only one remedy for existential guilt. It is the recognition that grace is enough. To use a variation of a Paul Tillich phrase, grace is accepting that you are accepted even though a part of you is unacceptable. You must come to truly believe that you are enough just as you are, no questions asked, no changes required. No wonder the opening words of Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese are so dear to my heart:
You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles
Through the desert repenting
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves