Why Do I Feel Guilty?

Recently, I had a caller who had one question. She wanted to know why she felt guilty. That day, she had honestly told a guy that she had been dating that she didn’t think that the relationship was going anywhere, and she felt that they should not continue seeing each other. Even though there had not been any discussion of a permanent relationship, she knew that the guy felt very let down after their talk.

This lady felt guilty over causing the fellow pain. Although she thought that she had done the right thing, she wanted to know why she felt guilt over doing something that seemed right (and also how to get over the feeling).

When we’re very young, one of the first lessons that we’re taught is that we should feel guilty over things we have done wrong. A friend of mine came to visit, bringing with her her three year old grand-daughter. As children do, this child seemed to move like lightning. Even though we felt we were watching her, I heard an outraged shriek from the next room. The little girl had seen my fourteen-year-old cat and had decided that pulling his tail seemed the logical thing to do. Fortunately for her, my cat is very good-natured and the child escaped with only a scolding from us. We told her that doing this was bad, that she had hurt the cat and should not do this ever again. I don’t think a three-year-old understands the concept of guilt, but it occurred to me that we were trying to instill this into her.

We have been conditioned, under normal circumstances, to feel guilt when we feel we have hurt or injured others, in various cases. This ranges from the guilt we may feel after cheating on our taxes to the guilt we feel from neglecting an old friend. We have been taught from childhood that this type of behavior must be paid for, that we must suffer in some way (or be punished) for what we have done. Guilt serves not only as a reminder not to repeat a certain action and a punishment for our mistake, but an attempt to instill empathy for others.

A feeling of guilt, however, sometimes overlaps into areas where guilt is inappropriate. Sometimes our parents have done too good of a job! A mother might feel guilty because she repeatedly nags her children into doing their homework. Another might feel guilt over overlooking a friend on her annual Christmas card list, even though this was inadvertent. I felt guilt that I had not more closely supervised the little girl, thus causing my cat distress.

But I have come to realize over the years that sometimes we carry guilt around as an unnecessary burden. This lady felt terrible because she had been honest, as nicely as possible. Things needed to be said but, still, she was sorry that she had caused the other person pain. She wanted to know how to stop feeling this way.

Well, being the nice person that I’m sure she is, she will always feel a twinge over this. But as I pointed out, other people’s feelings are only our responsibility up to a certain point. She is responsible for her own feelings and behavior and not for that of others. The burden of poor behavior does fall on each of us, but self-recriminations are not appropriate when we have done our best. She had done her best, but still could not keep from causing at least some distress.

Guilt that is pointless can eat up our lives. As I told her, I saw that she needed to let this go, to realize that honest behavior can cause temporary pain. But I told her that her honesty was very helpful in letting this man go on to someone who could appreciate him for who he was and who would want a permanent, loving relationship. He was being held back from true happiness by someone who did not really want him but would not let him go.

I told her that she should feel guilty for committing an intentional act done to hurt someone in a deliberate way. Feel the guilt, resolve not to repeat the action, forgive yourself and move on. Life is truly too short to punish ourselves again and again over not only what might not be our responsibility, but over what cannot be changed. But to feel guilt over what we have not done—that is also a waste of our lives.

This lady will always feel a twinge when she looks back at her relationship with this man. He was a part of her life, for a time. But she never intentionally hurt him and therefore, should forgive herself. Guilt serves a purpose, but it should not be a pointless burden that drags down our lives.

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