Guilt is a negative emotion that people experience when they perceive they have caused undue harm to another. The thoughts or perceptions that cause people to feel guilt might be accurate or inaccurate. Perceptions create emotions. If people believe a perception, they feel the associated emotion.
Guilt is an incredibly powerful social emotion of paramount importance to the development of intelligence, yet it’s also used to take advantage of people. It can be an intensely abusive tool for controlling others.
The undue damaging effects that people cause others are called offences. Offences correlate to the causation of guilt.
Pain is usually defined as a physical reaction to cell damage. In a similar manner, guilt is emotional pain. When people perceive they have caused undue harm to someone they care for, it hurts them emotionally. The paralysing and recoiling emotional reaction of guilt is very much like a reaction to cell damage, but the cell damage of another. It’s to stop undue damage to other people and ultimately the guilty person’s future social opportunities – with the thought the cared-for person is an extension of one’s self (the extended-self).
There can be far reaching and unpredictable social consequences to unduly harming someone. This means people can fear both the damage they have caused people and the consequences of third-party actions. Fear of damage to reputation, fear of rejection, and fear of punishment may all accompany an experience of guilt.
The experience of guilt causes an array of reactions and outlooks that people further become emotionally affected by – in many ways every day without them realising it. Guilt acts as a guide of “where not to go” and “what not to do”. Secondary emotions, such as guilt, are triggered and processed in the right prefrontal lobe, and they’re now intrinsic to human social experience.1 Because of this instinctive use, people often do not realise how frequently they make decisions which partially use guilt to inform those decisions.
Guilt has had far more influence over human development than is commonly acknowledged. One of the reasons for this oversight can be the thought that the Christian Church invented guilt as a method of social mind control. As guilt is an evolutionary, socially intrinsic, emotion that was around long before holy men walked the earth, giving religion the credit for creating guilt is a purely fantastical suggestion. Nevertheless, guilt is used as an abusive tool to control people (see Anger), yet it’s also a natural reaction to the unduly damaging consequences of one’s actions.
Guilt is an amazing, complex emotion that can be intellectually fantasised into very obscure meanings with subjective rules of engagement. Personal interpretations of guilt can strike people to their core and physically, emotionally and mentally paralyse them in a split second. This is true even though the subjective reasoning behind their paralysis may not be understood by those around them. Due to intensely ideological views, feelings of guilt can be far removed from common sense. If people feel guilty, they have a perception that they are doing something unjust or causing unnecessary harm to another. Nonetheless, feeling guilt does not mean that they are guilty because it’s their perception of the situation that creates their guilt, and perceptions can be inaccurate or even fictitious imaginings.
Predicting guilt informs interactions with others. People create scenarios in their imaginations to predict the outcomes of their actions. These can be incredibly accurate, yet they can also be completely fantastical. Nevertheless, people instinctively detect and avoid issues of guilt. If people predict a course of action would lead them to feeling guilt, they generally avoid it as that would have damaging effects on their surroundings; it means they won’t fit in, and that it’s not a good decision. Looking through an evolutionary lens, it’s clear to see that if people did something wrong in the distant past, say 200,000-years ago, the mistake could have been fatal and resulted in their death or the death of someone close to them. Humans partially learnt to imagine complex and dynamic situations, regarding their personal actions in relationships, to keep their families out of serious trouble.
This prediction of guilt is literally a lifesaver that’s evolved into a primary way of keeping people from making mistakes. Guilt always has a moral connotation. Back in bygone eras the effects of mistakes would have had more serious consequences on morale than at present.
Because of the length of time in human evolution where getting things wrong was a deadly affair, it’s reasonable to suggest that the reason guilt can create such strong physical, mental and emotional paralysis is due to instinctive suspicions of deadly mistakes. Life was increasingly more violent the further back history goes. Human emotional instincts evolved through those environments, and they reflect specific responses to real challenges faced on earth.
If the prehistoric past is brought into a present day scenario, how would people feel if they sent one of their children to get food alone, because they couldn’t be bothered, and their child was attacked or seriously injured? What if people tested a new food on a family member and they died? What if people did not provide enough for their children who then withered and died before their eyes? Just imagine the consequences of being in a pre-historical situation without a mate and having three young children to provide for, or being a child with no parents.
If someone had been responsible for such an occurrence, these are perceptions that could potentially create immense amounts of guilt. It would shock a human to his or her core. These dramatic examples are to briefly illustrate the serious and deadly consequences of making mistakes for a couple of million years while humans evolved. This would suggest that if people are caused to feel serious guilt about their behaviour, their instincts would relate the feelings to potentially deadly consequences for acting in such a way. Psychologically, an associative network of similarly toned emotions is kept, and when a strong emotion is felt, experiences of a similar emotional tone are brought to mind for comparison, so as age-old instincts would not relay an explicit conscious memory to mind, this would perhaps be felt as deep dread, an omen, or frightful trepidation.
Consequences to mistakes are usually far less severe in modern Western cultures than they ever have been in the entirety of human history on earth. This means that people can unwittingly make others feel as if there are potential deadly consequences to acting in certain ways. Notice that this would typically be an intense fear or sense of responsibility, and not thoughts of death. Expressing intense amounts of anger can induce serious guilt in people. Children are more vulnerable than any others to this type of induced emotional conditioning.
In modern life, people have more opportunities than ever before to re-assess how offensive their actions are. If people have done something wrong, it’s important to distinguish how guilty they should feel, so their reactions are appropriate.
Humans can partly attribute the processing power required to comprehend outcomes of such dynamic situations to the development of their cognitive abilities. The development of human brainpower is related to the computational processes involved in their ability to perceive guilty issues. Human intelligence is bound to the ability to anticipate. Human success is bound to the ability to predict and avoid trouble.
Although guilt is a very effective way to get someone to stop doing something, it’s also detrimental to a person’s integrity when overused or abused. When the possibility of danger is conveyed to someone as an accurate statement of reality, the amount of guilt people would potentially feel if they were to place someone in that danger would be appropriate to reality. Be that as it may, if the conveyed danger is fictitious, and people believe it, they would think that a danger is present when in reality that is not true. Psychologically, this would create a delusion. The people would experience and express inappropriate emotions surrounding the given situation.
If a child was repeatedly made to feel guilt unduly throughout their upbringing by a significant other, as a means to stop them from doing things, the impressionable child would be made to live in a partially delusive state. They would experience inappropriate emotions with every inaccurate perception of guilt. The child’s behaviour would be severely curbed. Their ability to respond would be seriously hindered.
The maladjusted, reactive behaviour would not stop there. Guilt stops people from acting, but it also compels people to act against others where they perceive they should feel guilt. This leads to a situation where people who perceive guilt inaccurately will try to discipline others according to their misguided principles. Believing in a false perception of guilt compels people to create social discords while exhibiting a righteously indignant air of superiority.
Surprisingly, to see if they are just towards others, people need to reflect on their feelings of guilt and the perceptions from which they stem. Feelings of guilt, in this respect, are issues that people can use for personal development that always bear fruit. Imagine people who have been stopped by guilt from behaving in certain ways, yet they discover on closer inspection there’s no need to feel guilty (or as guilty). This is a truly liberating experience. One that can have far reaching consequences to self-esteem. This is related to what people believe they deserve on a subconscious level and subsequently to self-defeating behaviours too.
The truth is, on closer inspection, many feelings of guilt have been passed on to people from their parents, significant others and environment when they were young and impressionable. The amount of issues people hold that they have unknowingly inherited from this period, without realising it, is astonishing. Personalities are made up of beliefs that are more concerned with what people inherited than they are comfortable to admit. These inherited guilt issues, which people have become convinced of without realising it, are of great value to personal development. Principles can quickly become out-dated in a fast moving world, yet they do not have to be wholly discarded, for they can be updated.
These principles could have been taught as a form of overbearing and inconsiderate control or as an attempt to guide. The point remains that people inherited them from others who are just as fallible as they are – maybe more so, for those others also inherited guilt issues of which they were unaware. This ultimately leads to the solid conviction that humans are being misguided through inherited principles to some degree. This on a larger scale is an evolutionary process of updating the views, which people have inherited, to be appropriate to current affairs; social evolution in action. Guilt is what determines many of the principles people hold and many of the things they will or will not do. Guilt, or its avoidance, is at the centre of personal and social development.
Nevertheless, guilt is not an easy conviction to overturn. If people feel guilty about something and then realise that they should not feel so guilty, it’s usually not as simple as letting go and behaving in a way they previously thought was wrong. Habits of not doing something can be as hard to break as habits of doing something. This difficulty is compounded by doing something they previously thought was wrong or even sinful. Individuals have the final say when it comes to the actual decision of whether they should feel guilty. Perhaps more appropriately the definition should be “how much guilt” they should feel. Believing in personal judgement enough to overcome the convictions that have been inherited can be a major problem.
A significant reason for this difficulty in challenging previously held principles concerns who originally informed the conviction. Attachment Theory has amassed more than fifty years of evidence.2 A fitting example of convictions being passed on by a parent is the Visual Cliff experiment where toddlers are placed near the visual illusion of a sudden drop in the floor. When they approach the cliff, they turn to their nearby mothers for guidance. The mothers are instructed to give a positive, negative or neutral expression to communicate with their child (e.g. smiles, nods, frowns, shaking of the head or no expression). A positive response will send their toddler over the cliff. The babies’ responses systematically and appropriately correspond to their mother’s emotional cues, and no speech is needed.3
The conviction with which some childhood memories are encoded is significantly determined by whose expression is part of that memory. If a parent, especially a mother (primary caregiver), or significant other repeatedly expressed themselves in a way that made a child feel guilt, regarding specific situations, it’s only reasonable to anticipate greater psychological resistance when challenging those convictions. People have to have the courage of their convictions.
Guilt is useful for issues of self-development as it indicates something people feel they should avoid, and if this is only partly untrue, they have gained an opportunity for self-liberation. On the other hand, if on closer inspection they find greater danger for others than they first thought, they have increased their ability to act responsibly.
There are issues to consider though. The lives of people who think of themselves as good people will revolve around the issue of guilt. They will avoid it with diligence. This makes them an easy and reliable target for persuasion methods that use guilt. People who think of themselves as good become the target of manipulation because it’s so obvious that guilt motivates them, so they’re often hypersensitive to it.
Nonetheless, manipulation aside, people who feel and accept feelings of guilt are more balanced people than those who do not. The recognition of guilt enables people to act appropriately and fit into their environment. Guilt enables progression while avoiding offensive mistakes that damage social prospects.
People who do not feel guilt are generally dangerous people. They may have chosen to ignore guilt because it would mean they could not pursue a course of action. It may be that they fear thinking of themselves as guilty, and the anxiety created from the thought of the retaliation that would ensue. Ultimately, they are ignoring the very thing that keeps them from doing harm to others. This can lead to people who think of themselves as good and virtuous while ignoring any guilt issues as a defence-mechanism. They can keep the belief of themselves as good and virtuous people undisturbed as long as the emotion of guilt is pushed out of their conscious awareness. If they treat the guilty in very harsh and unforgivable ways, it would follow that they would have to be harsh and unforgivable to themselves. What they may find even worse is that they would be forced to change their attitudes towards the guilty to continue to think of themselves as just and virtuous people.
It may be surprising that people who do not feel guilt often have rigid personalities and deeply set belief systems. Many people think that those who do not feel guilt are free to do anything they want, but this thought is far from true. They usually do not feel guilt because they do not want to accept the consequences of what they have done, or are doing, due to their belief systems – belief systems they will ignore reality to maintain. People who do not feel guilt can act in desperate ways to maintain their perceived status.
Guilt issues create complex situations to address. In addition to the above scenarios, some people, especially the young, do not realise the full extent of the damaging effects of their behaviour because it has not been pointed out to them.
Also, a difference between personal guilt and criminal guilt exists. Laws change and criminally offensive behaviours in one year are not criminal offences a decade later. If laws represented the degree of undue harm inflicted, there would not be such disparity between criminal guilt and personal guilt, yet laws encompass more than the undue harm that is caused or could have been caused to others. They can include beliefs of how human beings should or should not act from ideological perspectives. Beliefs that are based on thoughts from thousands of years ago. Some laws include religious ideological inclinations. Such issues can supposedly represent offences to supreme supernatural figures of which only the holiest of men can commune. Such perceptions are motivating a slow separation of church and state, in the West, that’s resulting in judicial laws that represent more closely the undue harmful effects caused by actions.
For example, less than fifty-five years ago in Britain, people who attempted to commit suicide were sentenced to prison as criminals if their attempt failed. Where did their guilt lay? Who did they unduly damage? This inaccurately imposed guilt is also typified by the treatment of gay people. In some countries gays are criminals and in others they are not. Where is their guilt? What undue harm have they caused? In some cultures females are prohibited from educating themselves, and if they attempt to educate themselves, they are shot or executed as examples. Where did their guilt lay? The claims of religious laws cannot be proven, and they’re based on beliefs and feelings that mainly pertain to a less evolved era.
Being pushed into convictions of guilt is something people should avoid with great effort, yet when guilt is naturally felt – not imposed – it leads to feelings of remorse. Guilt is a prosocial emotion because its prediction can stop people causing harm to others. When people have done something unjust, guilt-fuelled remorse compels them to repair the damage they have done, and to seek forgiveness.4
Guilt is one of the most difficult, significant, revealing and liberating emotions to work with when it comes to self-development.
Old English. Gylt = crime, sin, fault, fine.
Old English. Gieldan = to pay for, debt.
1. A failure of duty, delinquency; offence, crime, sin.
2. Responsible for an action or event; the fault.
3. The fact of having committed, or being guilty of, some specified or implied offence; guiltiness.