I should be ashamed of myself. When I do something I shouldn’t–skip a workout, criticize someone in anger, or stay up so late I’m a bitch the next day–I feel guilty. And that’s usually where it ends. I check off the box that says I’m a good person and move on.
It’s a problem.
Guilt is certainly an important stage in moral development. Say, when we’re five and punch our sister but then tell Mom she started it. That would be a great time to feel guilty. Early in Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, guilt is merely a signal that we’ve deviated from external standards for our behavior. The problem is when we get stuck there as adults.
I was raised in a Mormon home and was a devout believer for my first 17 years. And like many religions, Mormonism taught that a sure sign of a healthy conscience is guilt. There’s some truth to this–sociopaths, for example, don’t feel guilt. But then again, neither do autistics.
Guilt in Mormon terms often meant expiation. Leaders taught me that it was enough to simply feel guilty, repent in my heart, and move on. From this angle, my parents’ abuse–both the abuse they survived and the abuse they perpetrated–was between god and themselves. They didn’t have to address it with me. It was an approach to behavior that supported silence. Silence is what I remember most about our living room, where my parents and my brother and I flipped through magazines or novels or textbooks on Sundays after church, each of us saying nothing, each of us staring blindly at the closed drapes when we thought the others weren’t looking.
Guilt, within the culture where I grew up, halted healing and prevented people from addressing anything. So as useful as it is when we’re five, the same kind of passive guilt can be pretty useless after we grow up. Because the types of behaviors for which healthy adults feel guilty usually have consequences. And those consequences have to be addressed.
I have a habit of sitting around feeling guilty for all sorts of things. Not brushing my teeth this morning. The thank-you card I didn’t send. The email I didn’t write. The attention I didn’t give my partner.
Lately, I’ve been realizing that I use guilt to let myself off the hook. Guilt serves the two-fold purpose of affirming that I’m actually a good person while leading me straight into a dead-end where I don’t have to actually do anything about the behavior other than feel guilty.
It’s the opposite of constructive.
And so I’m going to tackle a challenge for the next two weeks. Each time I feel guilty and prepare to sink back into my complacency, I will find something I can do. I’m going to try to stop using guilt to avoid the behaviors I’d like to change.