- Existential guilt, which acknowledges that guilt is inherent in being human, is a beneficial emotion for healing and personal growth.
- Neurotic guilt means we take too much responsibility for our relationships and the world.
- Denial or avoidance of guilt means we take too little responsibility for our relationships and the world.
Often in our culture, guilt is not considered a valuable emotion. It is viewed as an emotion that inhibits us from feeling good about ourselves and life. It is viewed as an emotion that doesn’t serve a positive purpose. There are four ways to engage with guilt. Three types of guilt are inhibiting or destructive. However, the fourth way is engaging with existential guilt, which is useful and constructive.
The guilt that we are most familiar with is neurotic guilt. This guilt is inhibiting. This is a guilt we get caught up in. We let it define us. We obsess over an action. We criticize ourselves and feel we are not good people.
For example, I don’t pay attention to my partner when it is important to my partner that I do. I stew over that I didn’t pay attention when I should have. I think of myself as a bad person. I obsess over what I have done. Even if I have apologized, I continue to blame myself. I don’t accept my insensitivity as a part of being human. I don’t accept that I am fallible. I don’t accept that sometimes I won’t live up to the person I thought I was. I slap a scarlet G-for-Guilty on my forehead. Even if my partner has forgiven me for my insensitivity, I still don’t forgive myself. I believe I am totally responsible for everything that happens in the relationship. That isn’t true healing for the relationship. There isn’t personal growth and learning for me.
We are also familiar with the denial or avoidance of guilt. These ways of engaging with guilt are destructive.
Denial of Guilt
In denial of guilt, I don’t take any responsibility for my actions. Acknowledging my guilt creates too vulnerable a feeling because then I would be accepting that I am fallible. Instead, I blame the other person. For example, I deny any guilt around my partner feeling ignored. It is their fault for being overly sensitive or for not understanding me.
Avoidance of Guilt
In avoidance of guilt, I also don’t take any responsibility for my actions. Acknowledging that I should feel guilty again creates too vulnerable a feeling. I would have to recognize that I am fallible. I believe, or pretend, that everything is okay or that what I did was no big deal.
For denial or avoiding feelings of guilt, there won’t be healing between my partner and me. There isn’t any personal growth and learning for me.
Existential guilt is different from the above three ways of engaging with guilt. First and foremost, existential guilt acknowledges that guilt is inherent in being human. It is part of the human condition for all of us. This is acknowledging that I am fallible. I won’t always be my best self. I accept this. I acknowledge that I will act in ways that cause pain. My action that caused pain is not the sum of who I am. While I feel bad about my actions, I don’t define myself by them, deny them or avoid them. I don’t blame myself or the other person.
Instead, I focus on taking responsibility for my choices and my actions. Then I take constructive action toward healing the rift I have created. I genuinely apologize and ask for forgiveness. I ask what amends I can make to heal the relationship. I accept whatever my partner feels in response. By taking responsibility, I learn about myself and enhance my personal growth.
How I engage with neurotic, denial, avoidance, or existential guilt also applies to my relationship with the world. I am part of this world. I impact the world, and the world impacts me.
For example, I am concerned about climate change and its potential effect on all of us. I am concerned about what we are leaving for future generations.
I can deal with it through neurotic guilt. I can continuously criticize myself for not doing enough to impact the climate crisis. I can sink into self-loathing, which doesn’t benefit the world or myself. By engaging with my guilt in this way, I am taking too much responsibility for the crisis of climate change.
I can deal with the climate crisis through denial of any guilt. I am angry at the lack of action being taken by others. I take no responsibility for the issue. The problem has nothing to do with me. It is about others not doing enough. By denying any guilt, I am abdicating my part in the crisis and am not taking responsibility for being a global citizen. This doesn’t benefit the world or me.
I can deal with the climate crisis through the avoidance of guilt. I don’t take any responsibility for my lack of actions. I act as if the climate crisis isn’t as serious as people say. By avoiding guilt, I am abdicating my part in the crisis and not taking responsibility for being a global citizen. This doesn’t benefit the world or me.
I can deal with the climate crisis through existential guilt. I recognize I am part of the problem because I am part of the human race. I don’t spend my time blaming myself or others. Instead, I focus on my responsibility as a global citizen. I plan how I want to contribute to mitigating climate change and its effects. I take concrete steps to accomplish my plan. Examples of this could be joining a climate change organization, contributing to one financially, and evaluating my daily actions. I take the most authentic level of responsibility that aligns with my beliefs and values.
I suggest the following exercise to examine how you engage with guilt.
Take some time to think of a person with whom you have regrets about how you treated them. When you think about it, do you move into neurotic guilt – blaming yourself? Denial of guilt – blaming the other? Avoidance of guilt – there is nothing to feel guilty about? Existential guilt – taking appropriate responsibility and positive actions to improve the relationship? If you feel you are focusing on neurotic guilt, examine what blocks you from shifting it to existential guilt. If you deny or avoid guilt, examine what blocks you from shifting to existential guilt.
I also suggest repeating the above exercise to examine any guilt you have in relation to the world. Examine your feelings and thoughts about issues that concern you – climate crisis, gun violence, or any other issue you are drawn to. Explore ways to engage with these issues, not from neurotic, denial, or avoidance but from existential guilt.
I wish you the best in your process of understanding, valuing, and acting on your existential guilt.