Guilt and Pride

Emotions are like animals. There’s the major ones everyone knows – happy and sad – but when you think about it there’s countless more. One emotion is complicated enough, but emotions interact and feed from each other. We all have a jungle of emotions within us. A jungle complete with food chains. Emotions can devour each other.

Guilt is an emotion that causes much struggle. Guilt seems both necessary to help discourage one from repeating past errors but – after some time has passed – seems pointless in that guilt doesn’t lead to anything. Guilt lays stagnant in the cesspool, festering, relentlessly growing older and danker by the year. Add Guilt to a list of emotions that can without means for positive resolution. Regret. Senseless fear. Rage. Paranoia. Jealousy. Each a wild animal.

The past is frozen beneath the ice, intangible if only by a moment. Where does that leave an imperfect person who has made mistakes and has no means of fixing them, no means of changing the past? Are we meant to carry Guilt with us for our whole lives when no release from Guilt is possible? Self-flagellation doesn’t make the world a better place, or make us better people. This can’t be the way forward. There must be a good use for Guilt beyond changing behavior.

So after you have taken responsibility for whatever you did or didn’t do…and after you have done whatever could be done to rectify things (if anything)…and after you have learned from your mistake…what next?

And then I realized, as an epiphany, that Guilt is part of a food chain with Pride. Guilt feeds from Pride. Basic ecology tells us that to get rid of a predator, get rid of its prey.

Realize that we are not enough, and that’s okay.

I’ve attempted to reconstruct my mental state at the times when I’ve failed my worst, often decades ago. I attempt to rebuild the moment: the information and choices available to me, my understanding of the world, my maturity and general outlook. Were my failures based on excuses or did I come by my failures honestly? These questions obscure the clarity of my vision like a dark cloud. The continual analysis of failure can hinder moving forward. My thoughts pace the night and wear a circular path in my mind. I’ve learned my lessons, but Guilt is a yoke that disallows breaking from the circle.

Guilt – like Pride – denies the truth of our humanity as beautifully imperfect beings. Pride leads to the delusion that we can fix the past. Since we can’t actually fix the past, we feel Guilt. Don’t believe me? Imagine a world where we could actually get a do-over, actually change the past and make a better decision. Guilt would wash away in such a world.

Yet, letting go of Guilt can be frightening. What if letting go of Guilt and forgiving oneself are the signs of a bad person?

Realize the futility of Guilt beyond behavioral change.

We can’t make perfect decisions. We can’t live a perfect life.

Guilt for the sake of Guilt doesn’t do anything positive or make anything better for anyone. Past decisions are solidified as in concrete.

If you have done what could be done – if anything – to improve upon what you did or didn’t do, Guilt becomes pointless self-flagellation, with your loved ones left to watch. Better to point the energy wasted on pointless Guilt outward into the world by doing good in the present. Live honestly and with integrity, and do what you can to help others.

Become humble.

Letting go of Guilt means letting go of Pride.  Pride leads to the unrealistic feeling that we can solve it all, be perfectly responsible, have known the right thing to do, save ourselves, save others…Pride is a trap that keeps us searching for answers in human ability and within ourselves, when the Past is beyond human grasp.

Let go of Guilt by letting go of Pride.

As a Christian, acknowledging human imperfection and accepting forgiveness is part of my faith. I’ve come to realize that Pride has been standing in the way of forgiving myself for being imperfect. I am learning to let go of the Pride that has tethered itself to my feelings of Guilt. They’re chained together, so I try to toss them both away. I am imperfect and I will fail.

Forgive yourself for things in the past that you can’t change. From this day forward, do your best, day by day. It’s okay to be a little damaged. Sometimes the damage is what enables us to more effectively be there for others. And we all need it – it’s a jungle out there.

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13 thoughts on “Guilt and Pride

  1. This is lovely, Katrina. I often think of guilt as a useless emotion, but it’s not quite that – sometimes it’s the voice of a conscience. Can you imagine a world without guilt? But most of the time it seems to do much more harm than good. Sometimes I feel guilty for making others feel guilty, which is recursive. I like the idea of ‘minor,’ less famous emotions. We’ve got one of those spin-the-wheel books for Surya that says, ‘When I lose my toy, I feel…’ and ‘When mommy leaves, I feel…’ but there are only four facial expressions and four choices of emotions to feel. Wait till he grows up…

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    1. Excellent point, Roshan. Where does conscience fit into all of this? I certainly wouldn’t want to imagine a world without ANY guilt because I agree that guilt serves a purpose, especially in the short term. Guilt changes behavior, helps to instill life lessons and hones the conscience, hopefully making us better people the older we get.
      However, I think there’s a point where you grow up to be a better person and would never do the things you did when you were younger, yet are still left with lingering guilt. For us, this might be things we did as children, teenagers and young adults. Perhaps an elderly person feels guilty about things they did in middle age. It seems there’s a point past which guilt ceases to do good and only does harm. It’s this “old guilt” that I’m focusing on here, rather than “new guilt” that we’re still processing and using to improve ourselves. At least, I think that’s what I’m talking about. :)
      I like the idea of a toddler toy about emotions. Learning about emotions is so important and can be so hard. Let me guess – the emotions in the toy are happy, sad, angry and scared?

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      1. Happy, mad, surprised, and sad, so pretty close – how’d you know? There’s some interesting questions in there that seem kind of open-ended to me, I’m not sure if they intend there to be a ‘right answer’ but I guess it is all in how the caregivers discuss it. ‘When I am alone, I feel…’ where all of them at various times seem like they could fit, and ‘content’, ‘at peace’, and ‘existential despair’ are not options. I hope they don’t intend ‘sad’ to be the right answer and are trying to raise a generation of codependent children! ‘When Mommy says no, I feel…’ is another good one. (Respect for her sense of discipline? What is the corresponding facial expression for that?)

        I echo Anita’s thought about it being nice to see somebody make sense of guilt and put it in its proper place. Guilt has been on my mind a bit lately, and I hate hate hate it. It feels like autoimmunity sometimes, stemming from something that has a purpose, but can become very corrosive and toxic. I’ve heard psychologists before refer to the concepts of ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ guilt, which is interesting – who is the ultimate arbiter of that? I guess in the end it is ourselves, and like you say we have to decide to release ourselves from that. Otherwise it is giving someone or something else this kind of hold over you. I wish it was as easy as a Facebook button saying ‘forgive’. That’s interesting to think of guilt as stemming from pride – I’ve never thought of it that way before, but it makes a lot of sense – we can’t fix everything, and we have to accept that.

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        1. Haha! Perhaps “existential despair” would be an option on the adult version of the toy. I wonder too what answer they expect from those questions. When Mommy says no I feel…like scheming for my teenage years? ;)

          I love thinking about guilt as autoimmunity, Roshan. Something meant for good that we all need to live a healthy life, but in this case it is working on overdrive and has become a destructive force. Great metaphor.

          I think that we have to draw the line for ourselves on many things, including, as you say, appropriate and inappropriate guilt. The thing that has a hold on us in the end is ourselves, and we can be – by far – our worst critics and the ones to forgive ourselves the last. The conscious on overdrive.

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  2. To be able to delve this deep and to cull out the root cause is not easy. I struggle with all sorts of guilt everyday that keeps me from being the person that i am or can be. Personally to me, this post makes so much sense. thanks for sharing this. I might just get all my life’s answers from your blog :-)

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    1. I’ve thought a great deal about guilt. I’m thrilled that these thoughts may be useful to someone else. Thank you for this, Anita. :)

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  3. This is an awesome post. This post made me feel so much better and lighter. It was like I just unburdened all the guilt I was carrying for a long time now. Thanks so much.

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    1. I am thrilled for you, Gayathri! I’m so glad that these thoughts I’ve been mulling over for so long are useful to someone else. :) Peace to you.

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