Feeling Guilty About Something?

An in depth examination of why we feel guilty and shameful.

“Every time I hear a new-born baby cry”… or see the innocence and helplessness of these tiny humans, I wonder how anyone can believe that infants arrived on this planet sinners! Like Frankie Laine we may sing passionately about what “I Believe,” but we don’t analyze very deeply why we believe something. The propensity to sin may be inherent in humans, but can a baby crying out with his or her first gasp for oxygen be considered a sinful act?

How can babies begin to sin without possibly knowing the intricate laws and customs of their new community? Are all human actions sinful? Must we regret the “wrong” turns we take throughout our lives just because they were not in the direction someone else thought we should have gone? The guilt people assume and carry around in their minds as excess baggage stifles their progress and impairs their happiness. Although I certainly don’t want vicious felons and child molesters on the loose in my quiet neighborhood, I think that many criminals become hopeless losers without hope of redemption because they have been taught in our churches that they were born sinners.

From our infancy we have been instructed about “the rules” established by family, school, church, society, and whatever company we worked for or organization we joined. In the beginning it was hard to understand why there had to be so many rules. Gradually we found it was easy to ignore some of the less important ones at home and at school where punishment was minimal.

The punishment handed out at our home was usually physical, but tolerable, and when explained, understandable. Everyone learns that to err is human, right? And to misbehave was expected, especially if you were a young male. To promise to repent and redeem yourself was a readily accepted remedy. For many of us males it became a frequently used trick to avoid more severe punishment. Time would always tell if we were really serious about behaving according to the standards laid down for us by powerful elders and strict members of “the authority.” The latter were the visible enforcers of those who made the rules.

When we disobey the rules or break the laws of our social group, our guilt is determined by the authority responsible to consider the seriousness of our crime or misdemeanor. As we grew up, we “paid” for our misbehavior and went on with our lives trying to behave “and sin no more.” Except for those who went to jail, reform school, or maybe even the state penitentiary. Their guilt for allegedly flaunting the laws of society was proven to exist in some court of law, and a sentence was rendered as prescribed or considered appropriate “to fit the crime.” Justice was supposedly served, and the criminal was given a cozy place in prison to repent and hopefully redeem him or herself somehow. The guilt of these condemned, incarcerated humans follows them for the rest of their lives inside or outside of the penal institution that houses them.

But the “companion” I am referring to in the title is not legal guilt. It is that guilt which a “self-convicted” person invites along in his journey through life and unconsciously harbors in his mind. This version of guilt is defined by Webster as: “feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy: morbid self-reproach often manifest in marked preoccupation with the moral correctness of one’s behavior: self-accusation.”

It comes into our minds when we think we have not achieved our family’s standards, or we have transgressed our church’s edicts, or we have violated social customs. The degree of censure for disobeying these moral laws ranges from merely having to endure someone else’s criticism to facing ostracism by the group establishing the criteria of proper conduct. Expulsion from that group may be the ultimate disciplinary action.

These consequences seem minor in comparison to those for breaking civil and criminal laws, but their impact on our psyche can be equally devastating. Our emotional reaction in admitting guilt for disobeying these unwritten laws or failing to “measure up” varies. For committing a minor indiscretion or a “venal sin,” we probably won’t suffer much from the reactions of others. But when we violate a more serious moral commandment, we may succumb to a severe bout with depression, or isolate ourselves from others by our own volition, or even change the course of our lives completely.

It’s possible that some of the very sensitive of us will just give up trying. Convinced they lack the moral fiber to fit into our society, they may turn to alcohol or drugs for “relief” from the pressure to conform.

On the other hand, most of us will learn sooner or later from a traumatic experience and strive harder to behave “correctly.” It all depends on the amount of acceptance we “need” from the “authority” we respect. This authority may be our parents, our employers, our teachers, our church’s elders, or the leaders of any group we become a part of. The authority we accept provides us with their code of ethics and behavior. We embrace that set of moral or ethical standards most of the time. When we fail to follow it, or we deliberately ignore it, we open ourselves up to feeling some amount of guilt.

This troubled, internal awareness we have of guilt is known as shame: “a painful emotion of consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety in one’s own behavior” according to Webster. How often have we heard while we were growing up, “Shame on you!” What did that expression mean? Go to your room and feel badly about what you just did? Or go outside and look for a green stick for your expected thrashing? Or to the whipping post and drop your pants?

Yes, we had to feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, and ashamed of ourselves, so that we wouldn’t disobey ever again because we wanted to avoid a repeat of this horrible mental and physical treatment called “punishment.” It was assumed by those in charge that our little minds would automatically understand why we must conform to the right way of doing things: their way of doing them of course! The fear of punishment would preoccupy us to the point that we would rationally decide to respect authority and always do their bidding- at least for awhile.

There are so many laws and regulations now that ignorance of a majority them is expected. But ignorance of them is no excuse in a court of law! Today citizens may be breaking human laws more often than sinners can violate divine laws. Failure to abide by all of them tends to make us the most guilt-ridden creatures in God’s Kingdom! Since the expansion of legislation and regulation is unstoppable, our poor children will have a chance to suffer guilt feelings far more often than we do now. Consequently, it might be the right moment to evaluate those obsolete laws and regulations which need to be amended or wiped off the books.

We have adopted a criterion for every phase and every moment of our life. What is the “right” size, weight, height, facial profile, color of hair for your skin, food to eat, way to walk, when to smile, how to address strangers, where to go to shop, etc., etc. Can you think of any act you might do when you put down this article that isn’t in some way stipulated by someone whose opinion guides your thought? Don’t put on your feet on the coffee table, hold the banister when you go downstairs, put on a sweater before you go outside, shut the door behind you as you leave, and check to see if it is locked. Then, if you drive the car, do this, that, and the other!

Is there any end to the series of instructions you are heeding as you move from one instant to another? Are all these instructions rational, useful, necessary, and appropriate? How many can be ignored safely without your feeling any shame for your deviate behavior? How long can your unacceptable behavior continue before the warnings and the threats of dire consequences from your respected associates become alarming to you?

You hear voices saying: “You shouldn’t be sitting here this long at the computer. You ought to be getting ready to go out to dinner. You haven’t finished paying the bills you planned to mail today. You forgot to take out the trash last night. You’re nibbling on too much chocolate. You aren’t exercising enough. You better call your son back to tell him we can’t meet them next Sunday.”

Suggestions are offered ad infinitum about what one should do. It’s only so much background din, unless failure to listen on your part brings unhappiness into the relationship between you and the authority behind those sneaky voices. And those are the domestic voices of the spouse you live with and love. Other voices from family, employer, church, and friends weigh in. Not to mention all the noise from the T.V. promoters, the radio announcers, and the screaming headlines in the newspapers and periodicals. That’s a blaring, bloody nuisance.

And what’s the result? More guilt feelings, shame for our inability to measure up, and maybe serious misgivings that we aren’t making any progress in life. So STOP! It ain’t fair! You aren’t all that bad (naughty, sinful, disobedient-you fill in the appropriate negative adjective!) You are merely behaving in a way that some people disagree with and disapprove of. Why do we learn that there is only one right way to do things: our parents’ way, our culture’s way, our church’s way, our country’s way? The legal way, the healthy way, the prosperous way, the safe way? Since humans made all these pronouncements, we can be pretty confident that many of these “right” approaches to do things are slightly off the target and some definitely “wrong.”

So many things another person does are not important so long as these acts do not interfere with our freedom to do as we like. Who else, besides ourselves, really cares about what we eat or drink? Or how much exercise we get, or vitamins, or sleep? Or how we spend our paltry salary? Or how we look or dress? Those of us who have learned to feel guilty about how we are living are primarily worried that the others we care about might say derogatory things about us. Or find fault with us. Now isn’t that a shame?

No, it’s just the psychological method we humans have always used to try to convince others to do things our way, to look at things the way we do, and to judge things with our specific criteria. If we could see and understand how different this criterion is from culture to culture, country to country, and person to person, we might not be so adamant that others do things the “right” way, our way!

But rationality goes out the window when we don’t convince our peers of the necessity of following our guidelines. Extreme measures may be employed by the infuriated and frustrated which include using poorly conducted polls, misleading statistics, and outright lies. Look at the political struggle going on in our country over abortion, separation of church and state, medical care, the freedom of speech issues of flag burning, celebrating Christmas, and education. Who is right and who is wrong? Who really knows? Like the joke: “How’s your wife?” “Compared to what?” (And by whose criteria?) Who gets the “say?” Every citizen in our democracy? Or just the adults over 21, the rich, the Democrats, or the righteous?

From our earliest recollection, we have to wash our hands before we eat dinner (which is more convenient today with inside tap water available.) The spoons have to be on the right, the forks on the left, and our napkins on our lap. We aren’t supposed to eat with our fingers, nor start before mom. Do you pass to the left or to the right? Do you use your fork like an uncouth American or a sophisticated European? Do you start to eat without a prayer of gratitude? Do you leave the table without being excused? Do you praise the cook and help clear the table? Or none of the above?

These are just a few of the manners that govern how we are supposed to behave when we sit down to dinner. Multiply this small set of detailed instructions by all the other routine and non-routine acts or tasks you do in one day, and the chances of violating a rule that leads to guilt for disobedience are astronomical!

Is there any moment of your adult life that you feel absolutely free to turn off the static noise from all those messages about what you should do and not do? Do you fall asleep thinking about what must be accomplished tomorrow? Do you make lists at the office to remind yourself of the more important commitments on your agenda? Did you buy one of those palm recorders to store all the future promises you have made by calendar date and hour? Have you left time for the unforeseen delays, disruptions, and distractions? Are you fulfilling all your obligations and performing up to your capacity? Are you achieving the results that others expect of you? Great! No guilt feelings today.

But when you read that article in the magazine that caused you to think about spending more quality time with the kids, or visiting your sick church friend, or caring for your mother who is recovering from some operation, didn’t you wince just a bit? Wasn’t there a pang of shame for just an instant? Didn’t you feel guilty about failing these people? Not if your agenda came first, of course. We tend to excuse ourselves when time seems too short to accomplish everything, but a tad of guilt is piled up in a corner of our minds for future a bit of self-flagellation. Another reason why we ought to review our priorities and throw out all those old rules that don’t pertain to us, right? Then, sweep out the corner where the guilt is accumulating. It’s not too late!

Yet, we have learned to carry a load of guilt. We might even feel comfortable with it. We might add to this psychological burden once we have been exonerated on some issues or after we have worked off the sentences for past offenses. But, when we can’t endure those voices any longer that tell us to stop being lazy and to shape up, behave, obey, and “do as I say,” we’ll begin to move our butts, or not. We may procrastinate a bit. It’s really easier to mumble to our companion about how unfair all the rules are!

Ah! So many rules, and so little time to contemplate their importance to us. By abiding by certain ones, we demonstrate who we are, what we respect, and where are hearts are leading us. The emphasis we place on adhering to some set of rules conveys our value system to those who hardly know us. It reveals to the observant how we evaluate issues, art, music, architecture, literature, etc. It elucidates our proclivities, our prejudices, our preferences. It exposes the weakness in our thinking, the shallowness of our reasoning, and the lack of our understanding. It opens us up for all kinds of criticism that can add to our guilt for failing to see that the opposition to our value system may have sound suggestions for altering the rules we embrace.

And all because of the law of unintended consequences! The rule-makers and the law-makers can never foresee all the consequences to the rules and laws they propose and adopt. There is always some unseen flaw in a law, an activity not considered that happens, or a “catch” that excludes some of those who are to be regulated from being covered by the law! Because this is a common problem encountered in composing the rules, we have come to believe that legislators purposely write the laws with “catches.” Any favoritism shown in the new law can be excused by the law of unintended consequences. And possibly corrected when the public outcry about the law’s “unfairness” reaches enough people to cause their legislative representatives to reconsider and up-date the unfair specifics.

But this takes time. Meanwhile guilt for disobedience is being assessed by some authority and accepted, maybe grudgingly, by the law-breakers. In this imperfect world, all the mistakes in making the rules, enforcing them, and judging others by their obedience to them causes many innocent people to harbor guilty feelings. It’s a shame, but “the rules are the rules.” “Sorry, I can’t help you, but I don’t make them!” “Write your congressman, hire an expensive lawyer. Appeal to a higher court, or admit your guilt and pay the fine.”

Not real solutions, I’m afraid. But, there are none. That’s why I’m trying to introduce you to your silent companion, that part of your consciousness that whispers, “There you go again, breaking the rules. You know what your mother told you?” And what your boss recommended, and what the police officer said who just pulled you over, and what all those other angry, law-abiding citizens who share the planet with you shouted at you with their middle finger raised?

Yes, it’s the raspy voice of your guilty conscience, the voice that argues with your creativity, your exuberance, and your lust for freedom (among other things!) I suppose you are already well acquainted with that grumpy voice. Now, don’t you feel a little bit guilty for having wasted all this time reading about someone you know so well? Yourself.

Chic Hollis is a longtime drummer and motorcyclist, who served in the US Air Force in North Africa. Married 4 times with 5 children born in 5 different countries on four continents, Chic is a politically independent citizen of the world interested in helping Americans understand the reality that is life overseas where many intelligent, educated, and industrious people aren’t as privileged as we are in the US. He studied Latin, Greek, Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German and ran several large companies. Sadly, Chic Has left this planet and we miss him very much, but we are very pleased to display his amazing writing works.