Hello to a productive, forward-focused life
Try to remember a time when you felt guilty. Maybe you did something you shouldn’t have — like purchasing an item beyond your budget. Or maybe you said something you shouldn’t have — words of gossip or an unkind rant. Or maybe it was because of a thought you had — a thought betraying someone you cared for or a thought of executing revenge. It might even have been because of something you felt, like that fleeting moment of schadenfreude when you heard about your competitor’s downfall.Whether it was caused by something you did, said, thought, or felt, the guilt you experienced was surely unpleasant. It was as if someone was wagging a finger in your face and shouting, “Shame! Shame on you, you terrible person! Shame on you!” The voice wants to make you feel bad.
Guilt Gone Wrong
That “voice” is, of course, your conscience. It generates painful feelings in order to motivate you to take action; you won’t be able to get rid of that pain until you reflect on your behavior and rectify it. The voice wants you to do teshuvah.
However, it doesn’t always succeed. Instead, a searing feeling of guilt may lodge itself in your heart like a heavy stone, paralyzing you with self-hatred. Instead of leading to self-reflection and spiritual elevation, it leads to depression and despair. When guilt takes a wrong turn, it ends up adding to our problems instead of healing them.
“I feel guilty for saying this, but I don’t like Yom Kippur. It’s a day that causes me to feel bad, to hate myself for what I’m not achieving, for wishing I could have done better in every area of my life. As Yom Kippur comes closer, I start to feel more and more dread and self-loathing.
“And I really feel guilty for saying this, but I also start to distance myself from Hashem. After all, I feel like such a failure, and I’m sure Hashem hates me. I guess I’m just like a kid who feels hated by his mother and so he hates her back. It’s like, ‘If I’m not good enough for you, Hashem, then I just give up.’ And then I hardly care about anything anymore.”
This person’s journey of guilt clearly illustrates how the yetzer hara goes about hijacking our conscience. At first, a healthy internal voice warns us of wrongdoing and urges us to return to the good path. But then, instead of accepting our regret, it starts complaining that we’re not sorry enough, considering how bad we really are.
Suddenly the voice is toxic, making us hate ourselves, Hashem, and everything that’s true and right. To relieve ourselves of the burden of guilt, we turn our back on Hashem. The yetzer hara has triumphed.
A little bit of guilt — just a tap on the shoulder, so to speak, is enough to alert us to the need to do teshuvah. Excessive guilt is never good. When guilt becomes intense, it’s either the yetzer hara disguising itself as a tzaddik or it’s mental illness. People, being human, commit many errors each day. Small amounts of guilt can help a person remain vigilant and on top of his or her game. However, when we’re racked with guilt, something else is going on. Intense guilt is one of the nine symptoms of a major depressive episode, a common symptom in PTSD (particularly survivor’s guilt), and a frequent component of “compassion fatigue” (caregiver burnout). It is not a sign of righteousness but rather a sign of illness.
To help keep guilt productive, we need to cut it short. As soon as we hear an internal reprimand (“You shouldn’t have done that… go make it right”), we should act on it. We can either dismiss it by considering its warning and rejecting its validity (“No, it’s okay. I’m happy with what I did and there’s nothing I need to correct”), or we can acknowledge it and initiate corrective steps (“Yes, thanks for pointing that out; I’ll call that person right now and apologize for the oversight”), or, when there’s nothing to be done, resolve to act differently next time.
Once we’ve done that, we need to put an imaginary “done” stamp on the issue and refuse to revisit it. Guilt has done its job, and it’s time for us to move on. If this proves impossible and guilt overstays its welcome, we should seek professional help.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 662)