I Plead Not Guilty

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My mother countered my drama-laden, “I feel REALLY guilty about …,” with a reminder that I needed to save guilt for when I’d done something wrong.

One of many high school mantras, “I feel so GUILTY,” was used when I hadn’t studied hard enough for some test, didn’t want to accept a date with a boy I didn’t like, or even when my best friend was unhappy. Later, after college, I worked that extra shift in the ICU when I would rather have dragged myself home to bed – so I wouldn’t feel guilty.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood how self-serving the whole “I feel SO guilty” thing really is.

We all mess up: we yell at loved ones, give sour looks to fellow drivers, or do phone-rage at that person in a faraway place who has our banking/Internet service/cell phone bill in his or her extremely polite control.

Though I thought she was completely off base at the time, I must have let some of my mother’s wise words attach to my adolescent brain cells, and later uploaded them when I was a mom of adolescents myself. She said that I could feel guilty, but it was just a waste. Instead, I could make an inner promise to myself to change whatever it was I’d done wrong – to sort of say “I’m sorry” to the world by doing things differently next time. The way she explained it, if all I did was go around saying how guilty I felt, eventually I would feel sufficiently punished and things would just go on as usual.

We’ve co-opted the G-word, and now it’s settled deeply into our daily lexicons, and used to defend a laundry list of the things we do that we don’t want to do, but do anyway (and come later to resent doing) because we would feel guilty if we didn’t. There are a thousand small things we do out of duty, or simply the deep pleasure of a kind act. But then there are also those niggling times when we join a committee, loan money, or agree to babysit in order to: not lose love, get praise, bolster a flagging self- esteem or a million other “hidden” reasons. When I asked my patient, who is an overworked, overbooked and overwhelmed mom of three why she elected to chair the PFO committee to purchase a new palm tree for the quad, she said … she didn’t want to feel guilty.

Guilt is a tool that has to be used wisely. It is an emotional warning sign that we learn when we are young and which helps us to know when we have done something wrong or hurtful to someone (or to ourselves).

We all experience this “healthy” guilt. Alone, driving to work, a man may reflect back on a harsh answer he gave, while preoccupied, to his child. The guilt itches him a little, giving him the chance to take action to change his behavior and make a repair. The sole psychological purpose of guilt is to warn us that we’ve strayed from behaviors we are proud of and to give us that little kick in the pants as a reminder to repair and take action for change.

You’ll know if the guilt you’re experiencing is “healthy guilt” (What did I do wrong? Who got hurt? How will I repair it?) or “unhealthy guilt” (Will she still like me?). Be skeptical the next time you feel guilty – have you done something wrong, or is there just that nagging feeling that you may have missed a chance for extra kudos? If it’s the kudos, it’s not guilt.


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