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Resolving Guilt Once and For All, Time After Time

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

There is a world of difference between human beings being human in making errors, misjudgments and “honest mistakes”, and human beings being manipulative, dishonest, and outright lying. Children usually learn the not-so-subtle difference between screw-ups or making mistakes, and manipulatively covering them up with half-truths, omissions and falsehoods. When one acts in a deceptive, devious, and deceitful way, the interpersonal trust invested in this person and the relationship is violated and damaged, sometimes irrevocably, and sometimes not.

It’s one thing to mess up as human beings do all the time if you haven’t noticed. It’s quite another to lie about it! When you lie, I cannot trust you, period. All bets are off; otherwise I get duped, and largely by my own misplaced trust, foolish naïveté and gullibility. Let’s say, it simply doesn’t sit very well. So long as the context one brings is deception and manipulatively lying to get somewhere or something, there is no way to clean this up. All I can do is avoid you until you learn to mature into being a trustworthy person, if that ever happens. Like with having bad credit, good credit repeated over time will help the bad credit fall away as you re-establish good credit. The rest of this writing addresses “honest mistakes” humans make and how to clean them up.

With a world awash in harm, mistakes, snafus, and screw-ups, what is any one to do? The time-honored, well-trodden path is to point the finger of fault and blame at someone else. That will let you off the hook, and as a bonus you get to skewer and gore someone else’s ox. Oh joy?! Typically the first domino to fall is fault and blame, quickly followed by guilt and shame, and then comes punishment of the wrongdoer and their heinous deeds. Thereafter, repeat this cycle endlessly. Clearly this is the program of a madman, that is, our egos or minds acting as a fictional self or an imaginary sense of who we think we are. It has a long and painful history on this planet.

It is a luminous moment indeed when you realize that none of the other dominos fall so long as that first domino does not fall. So the power of all the dominos in a line of dominos falling is contained in the first domino, much like the keystone in the middle of a bridge is crucial to hold up a bridge. With it, it stands; without it, it falls. Shift the way you cognitively hold and see missteps, whether you call it harm, mistakes, snafus or screw-ups, and that first domino is forever transformed. Simply shift missteps from fault and blame to responsibility, specifically owning your share of responsibility, and the whole pattern wonderfully pivots.

When you own your legitimate share of responsibility, whether that is one percent or one hundred percent when things fall apart, there is no need for guilt or shame, and furthermore no need to beat anyone up! Responsibility literally means being “response-able”, that is, being able to respond or choose. The lovely possibility is to take the ability to respond and choose into life, when it all works out well and when it doesn’t. You might even call this behaving as an adult would. Acting as an adult can occur at any age. And at any age it is stunningly amazing to find.

Consider guilt to be feeling badly over something you have done that was wrong or hurtful, or even closer to the mark, the feeling of disgust with a negative mindset. That makes existential guilt a pseudo-feeling or pseudo-emotion. Shame is seen as believing you are bad, awful and horrible as a person, again with the feeling of disgust and a negative mental judgment.

Existential guilt, is triggered out of real harm, that is, injury on physical, cognitive, emotional or relationship levels. Actually resolving and making peace with guilt is an essential element for healthy growth. Here are two key criteria that provide a simple acid test for existential guilt: (1) show that this action is wrong, such as with murder; and (2) show the actual harm enacted, as in some form of injury or violation. Little in my experience qualifies as morally wrong, as in the extreme case of murder, and not too much qualifies as outright harm that is usually acted out either. If you can notice either, then it’s existential guilt, and it’s not a matter of intention, although without bringing any intention for harm, there is less sting. The majority of the time whatever occurred does not qualify as existential guilt. Rather, it is ‘imagined guilt,’ that is, you think you did some harm to someone, yet you really didn’t. You never looked to see for yourself. Pausing to look for yourself is a most helpful step to prevent carrying what is not yours.

One estimate for most individuals is that of all the guilt people carry, and keep adding to lifelong, perhaps 10% at the highest and less than 1% at the lowest, actually qualifies as guilt over wrong doing or outright harm. The rest is imagined guilt, and that’s worth recognizing, releasing and returning to feeling fine about you. At such moments you can enjoy boldly pronouncing, “Cancel and erase,” several times and immediately rewriting it with a validating statement about you like, “I know I did no harm, I’m a good person and I’m up to making a positive difference.” Every one of us can realistically breathe a sigh of relief at such times.

What is to be done if, after checking with reality, you or someone else actually did something wrong and caused harm, and now bear existential guilt? A straightforward approach to dissolve and make peace with guilt, and thereby complete the experience, can be enormously valuable both to get back to being on good terms with yourself and return to being on fine terms in your relationships. This helps heal injuries to one’s integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, and relationships. Here are five essential steps with two optional steps to fully accomplish just this:

1. Recognition: First, wake up, notice, and observe your actions when harm or mistakes occur. See for yourself whether your actions, including words, attitude and body language, are associated with resulting difficulties. Ask, “Is this action of mine wrong like murder?” and “Did my actions directly cause or indirectly influence some harm, injury and violation occurring to another?” If either question is answered in the affirmative, then you have recognized harm you were a part of. This step is the important one of recognition or awareness. Without this necessary step, nothing follows. Say, “I recognize / see / acknowledge this harm.”

2. Responsibility: Publically state your personal responsibility in the matter when harm resulted from or was influenced by an action of yours. Do verbalize your responsibility and ownership directly to the person or persons so harmed; say, “I did this; I own this; I am responsible for this.” This is a good spot to linger, look the other person in the eye, and slowly, sincerely and repeatedly say what you did and own the responsibility for what you did.

3. Commitment: Give a two-sided commitment and your word of honor to not repeat this harmful act, and commit to perform good, responsible actions from this point forward; say, “I commit and give you my word that this harm will not happen again; instead I promise only to perform these good, responsible actions of… from here on out.” Usually this critical step is not done at all. People receiving such a powerful two-sided commitment often are thrilled.

4. Repair: Verbally ask what you need to do to repair the harm and make it right again; say, “I want to make this right with you; what can I do now to make this right with you so it is fully behind us?” Often simply stating what you have is sufficient. If there was some material loss, this loss may be asked for to complete the harmful episode and have it be behind you both. Sometimes doing a service to the harmed person or the community in some way may be fitting. After all is sincerely said, the person who enacted the harm can ask the person so harmed whether they are satisfied. Usually this is the case.

5. Release: With repair complete in the eyes of the one harmed, this episode is now done; say, “Is this now over and complete for you? If so, then great! We both can completely let this go starting immediately.” There may be some people who unfortunately are skilled at carrying grudges and will never let the incident go and be done with. This is relatively uncommon in my experience, thank goodness. Whenever this happens, it is fitting to inform the grudge holder that the incident is over and done with for you; say “Well, it’s over and done for me, and you can continue to hold onto it if you wish.” Importantly, so long as the harmful behavior, including addictive patterns, is not reenacted, it is ‘off limits’ to bring up, even in the heat of an argument. The completion and closure of this incident practically means the behavior cannot be brought up in conversation, unless the harmful actions are repeated. When the person has been true to their word in action and the other party wants to drag up this specific old issue that has not been acted out again, doing this is can be called playing “low ball” and reflects poorly on the person doing it. In fact, now it is up to them to clean this misstep up! Of course, when the injuring party does go back to acting out the harmful behavior, it is fitting and appropriate now to look at it in the context of a past history of doing these actions.

Some people that bring a background in religious or moral training may want the person who did harm to say they how badly they felt over what they did, the harmful consequences, the pains inflicted, and offer regret for doing it. If you can honestly say this, that’s fine. You may find it more fitting to say you did not feel good about what you did, a more positive shift in tone. The injured party may think an apology and asking for forgiveness is necessary as well. In either case, consider doing one or both steps bellow as necessary for the injured party. It costs you nearly nothing, only your sincerity along with your willingness to have this incident completely behind you. It’s a very small price to pay for a fabulous result. In fact, it’s a great deal for all.

1. You can state that you feel badly or don’t feel good about what you did and the harm you caused, and that you regret doing it; say, “I feel badly / I don’t feel good about what I did. Now I know what harm occurred from it and I regret doing it.”

2. Verbally offer an apology and ask forgiveness for what you said or did. Be specific about the issue at hand. Say, “I apologize and ask your forgiveness for saying / doing…”

Some authorities say that it is better to die with the truth instead of ever admitting responsibility to avoid hurting other people. Sometimes, as with affairs from years past, nothing good may come from saying anything today, especially if the behavior has ceased long ago given you have honestly grown and matured. Good judgment means weighing the possible harm to the injured party from your admission today and taking the steps to clean it up, against the possible harm of not acknowledging the incident, owning and cleaning it up given how ago it was, how different the times and circumstances were, and how far you have grown since then and not repeated the harmful action. Constant vigilance and care is critical to not rationalize misdeeds to feel more comfortable, avoid possible conflict, and not face up to your responsibilities in living.

The hardest decisions are not between right and wrong; rather the hardest, toughest and thorniest choices are between two rights. By using astute reflection, wise discernment, and drawing upon counsel with trusted mentors/consultants, including the indwelling divine, you can make the best apparent choices you can. While it is inevitable that you will make some mistakes in this life, it is a great support to have the use of powerful, effective tools to move all the way through these missteps and resolve guilt once and for all, time after time, until nothing remains. Upon your engagement in doing just this to completion over and over, you can fully return to the natural serenity, everyday happiness, and majesty of now, and dwell and abide in guiltless peace.

Keep Reading By Author Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.
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