On guilt

Guilt is among the most destructive and devastating of human emotions. Because of its painfulness and its terrible impact on self-worth, guilt inclines one toward suppression, walls and denial. Denial causes dehumanization, a loss of the capacity for empathy for one’s partner or for others, and can manifest itself in a variety of insidious ways. Guilt invites masochism: “I deserve to suffer” or sadism: “I must render you (the other) helpless out of fear of your power over me. I cannot feel safe unless you (the other) are helpless.” It is the basis for scapegoating, prejudice and projection.

Guilt builds barriers in relationships. “How can I let you know me if I am guilty? I am unworthy.” It elicits self-hate, shame, and humiliation. In creating distance, it prevents intimacy, leading to isolation, loneliness, and depression, along with hatred and distrust of others. It elicits envy and jealousy of others seeming well being. It cannot allow love or pleasure. Being guilty, it cannot trust others positive efforts and doesn’t feel deserving. It must reject overtures of caring. At the extreme, it becomes paranoia.

Confiding: the ability to allow ourselves to be known, is largely dependent upon feeling “good enough and lovable” in order to trust another with our truths. The ability to confide is essential to and dwells at the heart of bonding and intimacy. Guilt sabotages this ability.

To believe one is good enough despite mistakes is essential to confiding, to acknowledging one’s own humanness. It is essential to self-worth and to the ability to appreciate the worth and humanness of others. Guilt precludes love, pleasure, closeness and intimacy. Along with creating walls, it can also create monsters. “I am not lovable, I am not good enough” often becomes the invisible script for addiction, depravity, scapegoating, persecution, failure and abuse.

It is important as an adult to own responsibility for one’s behavior, to be able to acknowledge mistakes, to accept criticism or complaints, to be willing to make atonement, to express genuine regret in order to be free to take in love, the pleasure that is possible between true intimates.

Religion provides a haven for confession and atonement. Spirituality concerns developing the capacity for love. Psychotherapy concerns the healing of emotional wounds. Guilt is the intersection where religion, spirituality and psychotherapy can meet and join forces to nurture the growth of compassion, empathy and love.

~ Lori Heyman Gordon

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