Feel your guilt, and let it go. That’s what guilt’s good for—you feel it, learn what’s to learn from it, and then retire it. You stop clinging to it—beating yourself up, bludgeoning yourself with it. Sometimes we need to listen to our guilt, for it can put us in touch with wrong things we’ve done. Guilt can enable us, humbly, to make amends for our harmful actions and attitudes. It can lead us to express contrition, remorse and sorrow for regrettable impacts we’ve had on others (and ourselves).
I say “sometimes” we need to listen to our guilt because it’s possible to feel guilt for things for which we weren’t (and aren’t) culpable. In these cases, we want to learn how to recognize misplaced, mis-assigned guilt and relinquish it immediately.
But even with warranted guilt, we must beware not to grovel in it. Groveling in guilt becomes self-indulgent, self-destructive. Yes, we want to extract from warranted guilt useful understandings and self-awareness. But once we’ve done this, it’s time to release our guilt, knowing when we’ve exhausted its constructive function. Otherwise we risk becoming “guilt addicts,” forgetting how to live without carrying the heavy, backbreaking weight of something guilty on our minds and consciences.
Sometimes we use guilt to duck taking fuller responsibility for something. We can kid ourselves that if we suffer enough (maybe even in perpetuity), somehow this cancels out bad, wrong things we’ve done (or we feel we’ve done)—almost like an “eye for an eye” policy trained on ourselves. In these cases, we ascribe to guilt a compensating power, as if sentencing ourselves to solitary confinement with our merciless consciences somehow equalizes the pain and suffering we’ve caused others.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we best do justice to our transgressions not by taking masochistic refuge in morbid guilt, but by owning our culpability and making whatever amends it’s possible to make if amends are in order and still possible to make. And if it’s too late to make amends, we accept this with courage and perhaps grieve the lost opportunity.
We best do justice even to the regrets that most haunt us not by succumbing perversely to crippling guilt, but by soldiering on in dedication to living more honorably with the wisdom we’ve acquired from an honest, frank reckoning with ourselves.