I’ve been thinking about guilt.  (I often do – it’s an interesting subject to me.)

What is guilt? When I say, “I feel guilty about how I treated her,” what do I mean? Do I mean, “If I had it to do over again, I like to imagine I would behave differently”? Or, “I regret the consequences of my actions, if not the actions themselves”? Or, “I would like (you), please, not to associate ‘me’ with that particular set of actions, as it is inconsistent with how I would like to be seen”?

I think, for the most part, this last definition is what (my) guilt is. Shame is different: it’s the palpable emotional pain, typically informed by fear, that comes from a distance between what society demands and that of which one is capable. It’s what I feel when I know myself, when I KNOW that who I am, what I do, is incompatible with the basic moral configuration of society.  Shame is empathetic – it’s what I imagine others would think of us if they knew “the real” me.

Guilt comes when I don’t know myself, when I refuse to know myself, from the unreconciled wish that I be different than I am.

Guilt is narcissistic – it’s my desire not to be seen as I am, as I know (or fear) myself to be.

Sometimes I confuse this – I think guilt is the desire not to be as I am, but this is an elaborate game of self-deception and/or evasion, and is ultimately nonsensical.  What does it even mean for me to wish to be other than as I am?  (See my previous post which touched on this subject.)  In order for me to construct that sentence – “I wish I were [different]” – I have to divide myself into two parts, the part doing the wishing, and the part doing the unfortunate being.  Alas, this isn’t how we are (or at least, it’s not how I am).  In practice, I may not be a perfectly unified and integrated whole – many of us spend years trying to achieve true integration – but neither am I a multitude of beings, in stark contrast to one another, all separate.  I’m one being, with one brain, one body.  As I wrote previously, when I declare a part of who I am to be radically unacceptable, to be undesirable, I’m doing violence to myself.

Guilt, I think, is one of the tools we use to inflict this violence on ourselves.

If I did something truly reprehensible, truly regrettable, then that’s what I do:  I regret what I did, apologize, learn my lesson, resolve not to do it again.  If I remain mired in guilt, then I’m spending energy on some other project, some project other than either righting whatever wrong I committed (making amends) or positioning myself not to do it again.  Rather, I’m medicating my wounded sense of self by telling a story that puts distance between the “real” me and the me that’s actually living, behaving, acting, in the world.  And if I apologize more than once, if I start to make my guilt your problem?  Well, then, I’m just enlisting you in the project of medicating my wounded sense of self.

What do you think?  Is this how your guilt works?  Do you have a different understanding?

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