Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Guilt is a Wasted Emotion

Are you caught up in others' judgments about you?

Guilt is an attachment to judgment. So, who's judging you? Mom? Dad? Sister Mary Ignatius? That is a question that, in the post-modern world at least, is right up there with ‘Who am I?" and "Why are we here"?

A good friend of mine is fond of saying, "My tribe (she was raised Jewish) invented guilt, your tribe (I was raised Roman Catholic) perfected it." Well, with the punishing Jehovah and the Holy See, respectively, looking over your shoulder at every turn, what would you expect? And let's not forget the redoubtable Allah ("One among you who knows Allah best is the one who fears Him most..." - Muhammed). So what's the deal?

Western culture is founded primarily upon an Abrahamic (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) ethic. One of the primary tenets of each of these traditions is that if you didn't start out having done something wrong, you are gearing up to do something wrong, or you have already done something wrong and you're going to get punished for it. Here, we find the genesis of guilt.

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Because the culture is so deeply enmeshed in this Abrahamic ethic of fear and punishment, it is a sensibility that is woven into the very fabric of our development. Why do you think you get a little rush and slow down when you see a cop on the side of the road or driving behind you? Because, even if you're not doing anything wrong, he's gonna getcha!

As guilt is a hidden cultural imperative, it is virtually inescapable - even if you're an atheist. It really doesn't have anything to do with religion, but is an effect of acculturation.

So, why is guilt a wasted emotion? Same old song and dance - if you are guilty, it is because you are attached to judgment, and that judgment is coming from outside of you. You are going outside of yourself to define who you are and, by association, how you behave, rather than relying on your internal mechanisms of decision making and self-regulation.

The fact is that, if you are a reasonably well constituted individual, you know right from wrong, good from bad and sensible from stupid. If you feel like you shouldn't be doing something, you probably shouldn't - and guilt (read: your internalized external judge) should really have nothing to do with it, before the fact or after. Once you've figured out who it is that is judging you and why you feel that they are judging you, you can move past self-stigmatization and enter into an authentic relationship with the situation at hand.

I recently had a patient whose father died while he (the patient) was in a coma. The patient was wracked with guilt because he felt like he wasn't there for his father. His guilt was getting in the way of his grieving, so, mired in his emotions, he was suffering doubly.

When we worked through to the understanding that he (again, the patient) had survived an accident that should have killed him, and -- despite being in a coma and having lost a leg while in that coma -- he was rebounding well beyond medical expectations, he came to the realization that he was being exactly the man whom his father had raised him to be - tough, determined and relentless.

That his father, despite his own illness and impending death, demonstrably recognized this allowed the patient to come to the further realization that, in that time, despite being unconscious, he was more with his father than he could have been had he been standing at his bedside. Guilt is set aside, grieving begins - healing begins.

Our attachment to judgment, rather than making us more responsible and accountable to our thoughts, feelings and actions, makes us less so because it is an obstacle to authenticity. Clearing away the veil of guilt allows us to be more connected to what it is that we are experiencing, our thoughts and our actions in light of that experience and, thus, to be more present with our experience, our emotions and ourselves.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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