Making Peace with Guilt — How to Clean Up Harm
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 how this action is wrong, such as murder; and (2) show the actual harm enacted, as in the form of an 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. 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's 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 make peace with guilt and complete the experience can be enormously valuable both to getting back to being on good terms with yourself as well as clearing the air and returning to being on fine terms in your relationship. This helps heal injuries to one's integrity and relationships. Here are three essential steps:
- First, state your personal responsibility in the matter directly to the person or persons so harmed; say "I did this." This is a good spot to linger, look the other person in the eye and sincerely say what you did and simply own it by taking responsibility for what you did.
- Second, give your full commitment and word of honor to not repeat this harmful act as well as 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."
- 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.
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 and the pain inflicted. They may think an apology and asking for forgiveness is necessary as well. In this case, the following two steps are useful:
- You can state that you do feel badly about what you did and the harm you caused; say "I feel badly about what I did. I now know what harm occurred from it and I regret it."
- Verbally offer an apology and ask forgiveness for what you did. Be SPECIFIC about the issue. Say "I apologize and ask your forgiveness for. . . "
After all is sincerely said, the person who enacted the harm can ask the person so harmed whether they are satisfied and whether the whole incident is over with. Usually this is the case. 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. If they insist on continuing to carry it, then it is a most unfortunate situation, this painful burden is entirely theirs and you wash your hands of it.
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. 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 resurfaced, doing this is can be called playing "low ball" and reflects poorly on the person doing it. In fact, now it is theirs to clean this up! Of course, when the injuring party does go back to acting out the harmful behavior, it is fair now to look at it in the context of a past history of doing this behavior. Some authorities say that it is better to die with the truth instead of ever admitting guilt to avoid hurting other people. Sometimes, as with affairs from years past, nothing good may come from saying anything today, especially if this behavior has ceased given you have honestly grown and matured. Good judgment means weighing the possible harm to the injured party from your admission, against the harm of not owning and cleaning it up with them. Now, be at peace.