In previous articles, I wrote about guilt being one of the triggers for anger and how we misuse it. In this article I will present the value of guilt as a self-awareness tool.
Often we make bad choices that can be self-destructive. The reason may be not because we are bad people but rather that we are trying to meet powerful needs or role expectations in unhealthy and self-destructive ways.
We find ourselves compromising our principles or crossing our moral and ethical boundaries. These elements can pressure us to make choices that violate who we want to be, what we want to stand for and how we wish to relate to others.
When we do stray from what we believe is right, it is often in a subtle way. It is as though we are in an unconscious mode, unaware of the damaging consequences of our actions.
What causes us to go into the unconscious mode? We become unconscious when we deny that what we are doing is wrong; when we justify in order to make the wrong right; or when we minimize.
Many of us stray because of strong internal forces that may overpower our sense of right and lead us down a road we never dreamed we would take. These forces may come from a suppressed side of ourselves that we have not examined. Instead of diffusing them by examining them we often suppress them, which in turn makes the forces even stronger. As a result we may find ourselves acting them out.
A frightening problem in our society is that instead of correcting the wrongs, we adjust to them. This is when a healthy dose of guilt is necessary.
The value of guilt can be illustrated by two images. The first one is an alarm clock. Guilt functions as an alarm clock that rings: Alert! Warning! Danger! The alarm clock should awaken us to our sense of right and wrong, of higher values, or a higher self. It can awaken us out of an unconscious state so that we become aware of the destructive course we have taken.
Feeling the guilt is not enough. Healthy guilt takes another step, illustrated by the next image.
We could say that the purpose of guilt is much like that of pain. If we put our hand on a hot stove, pain tells us to remove it immediately or we will have more pain. The pain tells us to make a quick adjustment. If we make the necessary adjustment, the pain will ease after a while. Guilt warns us to make a correction.
In this way guilt is like a defender of our goodness by helping us get back to our healthy expectations, values and principles.
Dr. William E. Austin is a licensed psychotherapist and holds a Doctor of Divinity degree. He is a therapist with Tidewater Pastoral Counseling Services . He is well known for his warmth and sense of humor. His book, Creating Our Safe Place - Articles on Healthy Relationships, can be purchased through www.amazon.com.
Tidewater Pastoral Counseling: 623-2700
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