Guilt is a tricky thing to deal with. In some ways, it acts as a malicious bully: beating you down for the sake of hurting you. In other scenareos, it can act as a wise teacher: telling you to do the right thing and make healthier choices for yourself and everyone around you. And it can be very puzzling trying to figure out the difference. It’s not as simple as “never feel guilty” or “always feel guilty” — it all depends where it’s coming from.
Guilt as a bully
Guilt as a bully works directly with your ego. It prevents you from living your truth.
- When it makes you “look bad” — if the guilt is there because you are concerned with how you appear to others, then this comes from the place of a bully. Examples such as sticking up for yourself or enforcing discipline may cause guilt because you feel like “the bad guy.” But often you must risk temporary suffering for long-lasting improvement. Often you risk hurting someone in the moment to make them a better person in the long-run. Often you must accept looking bad, knowing that the bigger picture shows the good in you.
- When someone is actively using guilt against you — most of the time we are our own bullies, but one of the greatest weapons another bully can use against you is guilt. This goes further than your own mind making you feel like the bully — but when someone else is embracing your own guilty feelings. This is when people victimize themselves, or threaten their mental health against you, or put 100% of their blame on you. This is when someone is so wrapped up in their own feelings that they can’t see your feelings and your side of it. You just have to be confident enough to let them tell their own story, let them say what they want about you to others, but stand firm in your truth. The right people will not turn against you.
- When you hold yourself to impossible standards — You are human and bound to make mistakes. What matters more is how you recover from your mistakes. Allow yourself to be human, to slip up or break rules from time to time. Go a little easier on yourself. Reassess your limits and ask for help when you need to.
- When it goes beyond your control — there are so many examples of feeling guilty for something you can’t do anything about. This is when guilt serves zero purpose, except to make you upset. It could be feeling guilty about how it’s raining outside. It could be feeling guilty about forcing yourself to be someone you’re not, or forcing yourself to meet expectations of others that don’t match your personal truth. It could be feeling guilty for someone else’s negative choices that you couldn’t stop. Let people take personal responsibility. And when there’s no one to blame, you simply make the best of a difficult situation, change what you can and accept what you can’t.
- When you go against mainstream / peer pressure / societal expectations — groupthink is dangerous and causes us to worry more about “what people think” rather than what’s best. People are generally close-minded and struggle to understand viewpoints outside of their own. You shouldn’t care about people getting offended or feeling uncomfortable when you’re doing what makes you happy, minding your own business, and not causing any harm. When people get angry about their perceptions being shattered, you are actually granting a favor by expanding their minds. People will also get angry when you do things they wish they could, but are too insecure to try. So follow your heart.
- When you’re breaking a toxic relationship — platonic, romantic, maybe even family, any relationship that promotes toxicity should be left behind without guilt. It could be that the person is involved in toxic influences that are contagious to your life, it could be that both of you together bring out the worst in each other. It could be their fault, your fault, or both. In any case, breaking this tie is doing a favor for both of you.
- When your mental health is at risk — this can apply to physical health too, but most of the time we tend to put our mental health aside for the sake of pleasing others. Do what you need to do in order to keep your mental health in check. Taking care of yourself is selfless, because only then are you able to fulfill your responsibilities, instead of expecting others to take care of you. If you are involved in anything that takes a tole on your mental health then you end up dragging down everyone around you.
In summary, nobody likes to hurt others, but usually risking hurt feelings in the moment leads to an overall positive outcome that leads to growth and understanding. If you are so concerned with a moment of hurt feelings, you end up hurting someone so much deeper in the long run. And also in many cases, it’s not even about hurt, but about “uncomfortableness.” And no growth is possible without discomfort — that’s why they call it “growing pains”!!! You should never feel guilty for someone else’s closed-mindedness or their lack of understanding — that’s a problem that they need to overcome, not something you should be bending over backwards for, or else you encourage their ignorance.
Guilt as a wise teacher
There are times when we need guilt as a voice of reason. It can be there to encourage change, and usually this change requires immense work and bravery. It deals directly with your soul.
- When you’re being selfish — put yourself first in a selfless way. When you expect everyone else to put you first, you’re being selfish. When you take more than you give, when you ask for favors and do nothing in return, you’re only thinking of yourself. Keeping to yourself is good, asking for help while offering help in return is good, but thinking the world revolves around you is wrong.
- When you’re getting away with things that others don’t — think about anyone else being in you’re shoes. Don’t use gender, age, race, appearance, money, social status, or “luck” as a justification for getting away with what others wouldn’t. You know how frustrating it is to watch someone get away with something you’ve gotten severely punished for, so imagine it the other way around.
- When you’re being lazy — laziness is one of the biggest reasons we dismiss our guilt. We take the easy way out by choosing to feel guilty for things out of our control, rather than feeling guilty for things we can actually fix. It takes a lot of work, bravery, and care to make a change. Guilt is worth listening to when it urges us to be better.
- When you’re just trying to “look good” — never do something just for the show of it. Pretending you care is not nice, it’s the lazy way of avoiding a guilt trip. Integrity means doing the right thing when no one else is watching. It also means putting your character at risk for the greater good.
- When you’re trying to control others — many of us suffer from control issues due to insecurity. You must find the confidence to allow everyone to live their own truth, that way you can also live your own truth.
- When you’re being spiteful — a bad mood strikes or something doesn’t go your way, then spite takes over and convinces you to do something wrong. You justify it by focusing on your negative feelings. Your pain is valid, but it’s never an excuse to be spiteful. On the contrary, use your pain to be a better person, hoping that no one else has to go through what you’re going through.
- When you’re jealous — just like spite, jealousy can cause us to do or say horrible things that you justify because you’re so upset.
- When you expect something in return — while it’s true that you should never let someone drain you, and that relationships should be equal give & take, ultimately it’s better to give a little more. You shouldn’t be keeping score with everyone you know, only being nice to someone if they’re nice to you. Think about times you were struggling and needed help, but couldn’t afford to repay it. Of course you need to draw boundaries at a certain point — do not over-give to the point where it’s draining you, people are walking all over you, and you are encouraging ignorant behavior. But a good rule of thumb is to give a little more than you receive.
- When you refuse a favor — not to contradict myself, but there are times when it’s not physically possible for you to give a little extra. If you are in need of assistance, don’t let your pride stop you from accepting help. Basically, don’t keep score. If you can’t repay someone’s help, then maybe you can pay it forward in the future.
- When you make *your* problem *everyone else’s* problem — it’s good to ask for help when necessary, but not to the point where you place all your burdens on another’s shoulders. You make choices and you deal with the consequences, even if you never saw it coming — it’s frustrating to make someone else deal with the consequences of your own actions that they had absolutely no control over. And it’s unfair to drag other people down with you when you’re falling.
Now these are just general guidelines, but of course it’s going to all depend on the specific situation.
When faced with guilt, we have three options…
- Ignore it / justify it
- Guilt is a very negative feeling, so most of it deal with it by pushing it away. You can lean on distraction or substances to make you forget. But typically no matter how hard you try, guilt does not simply go away. So you justify it by focusing on your own pain instead of other people’s pain.
- Fall into a shame-spiral
- Eventually you reach a point where the guilt can no longer be dismissed and it’s something you have to deal with. When you suppress your guilt, you subconsciously feel like a bad person, and go on to make even more bad decisions. Then the guilt comes back to the surface. So you suppress it again and go on to make even worse decisions. And so on…
- Apologize & repent
- Most people live their whole lives in a deep shame-spiral. Most people are caught between feeling bad and acting bad. In rare cases, a person is brave enough to face their guilt and accept their faults. This could be through apologizing to someone or by showing signs of remorse.
- Make a change
- Repenting can only take you so far. What takes even more bravery is taking action! Saying the words or putting on a show is easy, but going ahead and changing your behavior is what really makes a difference.
- Live your truth
- Through all this bravery, you gain confidence. At this point you understand the difference between guilt as a “bully” verses “a wise teacher.” You take a stand against guilt for the sake of shame, and you obey guilt for the sake of positive change.
One thought on “Dealing with guilt ~ the bully vs. the wise teacher”
That’s a good point about the difference between the bully guilt versus the teacher guilt. I used to think that feeling guilty made me “good,” that as long as I punished myself with feelings of guilt it meant I was atoning for whatever mistake inspired that guilt. However, I’ve come to realize that unless guilt inspires us to change our ways, it isn’t helpful. Of course that doesn’t stop me from feeling it at every little misstep, but I try to remember to pursue options 3-5 or, if it’s minor and I can’t fix it, to let it go instead of holding on tight.