Guilt-A Very Useful Emotion

Friedrich Nietzsche said: “Guilt is the most terrible sickness that has ever raged in man.” Today the view exists that guilt, ” is an essential part of being a responsible person. It is a tool of conscience.”

Photo by / K. Mitch Hodge

Standards of living exist. Standards of conduct exist. Universal standards of morality exist. According to famed psychologist Sigmund Freud, the emotion of guilt has its’ origins in the conflicts which arise within a person when these standards are violated. The psychopath is one who lacks any true sense of guilt when causing harm to others. He/she will rationalize the wrong done or blame someone else. Most times, he/she will deny that anything happened. Freud and his associates would have described such a person as lacking in all moral reason; incapable of forming and maintaining emotional bonds; a person devoid of empathy. It is our ability to experience guilt and its’ companion remorse that allows us to develop beneficial relationships. It is why we have survived as a society.

At first breath, a newborn is ready to feel love, to experience compassion, to know empathy and to respond to fear. There is data to support the belief that a child of two has already developed a moral compass. Before age three children will have experienced guilt, shame, embarrassment. As awareness of their reactions and their knowledge of standards increase, their ability to express their emotions is refined. Guilt will help them form character. It will influence their personality. Parents and teachers agree that guilt is good.

Photo by / Caleb Woods

For many years, the prevailing opinion circulated that guilt was a huge waste of time. Most considered it an unpleasant emotion, a distasteful feeling, a worthless and useless form of self-punishment. Slowly but surely it was admitted that guilt does have a purpose. Feelings of guilt motivate us to make amends when we do wrong. It is the ability to feel guilt which allows us to see another’s perspective. It prompts us to show more tenderness, more affection, a greater degree of compassion in our relationships with others. There would be a far greater number of criminals were it not for the existence of guilt. We would have far fewer friends were we to persist in dishonest, illegal and deceitful behaviors, all of which come with heavy doses of guilt attached to them. It must be said that misplaced guilt does occur and no doubt we have at one time or another accepted the blame for a situation that was not of our creation. If left to fester, such an event can cause various mental disorders to appear such as depression and anxiety. Also, it is important that we not confuse guilt and shame. They are two distinctly different emotions. Suffice to say, guilt is a very useful emotion because it makes us better people.

Photo by/Michal Parzuchowski

Much of literature throughout time has revolved around the relationship between the human soul and the experience of guilt. Medical professionals have for many years attested to the importance of literature in society’s understanding of this oldest of emotions. So much of what we know and accept about guilt has come to us from the writings of long ago beginning with the Bible, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Inferno, Macbeth, Crime and Punishment, The Trial, Lord Jim, Atonement, The Scarlet Letter, The Fall, The Shining, The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, The Tin Drum, and so many many more.

So enjoy that bite of chocolate cake; do not cringe as you savor that spoonful of iced yogurt. Just remember to leave some for me.


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