Guilty as sin

When the landscape of wrongdoing is so vast, where’s the value in feeling bad?

It’s a horror scene. I’m in the lounge looking up at the ceiling and the blood dripping from it. There’s a suitcase hidden there, oozing from the limbs I stuffed in it. I must do something about the bodies before the visitors come. They’ll be here soon and everyone will know about the murders I thought I’d gotten away with…

I wake, overwhelmed by guilt and terror, my heart racing, panic in my throat, my mind desperately trying to piece together the crimes I’ve committed.

For a few milliseconds, I live in this nightmare, trying to reconcile myself to this shocking and macabre truth.

And then! Sweet, generous relief: It was all a dream.

In that moment, I’m the most morally sound human I could ever hope to be. My humanity has been tested and I’ve passed scrutiny: I’m not a psychopath or even a sociopath, for my guilty feelings tell me so. (I mean, sure, just being awake and not feeling the compulsion to take a life tells me so, but it’s good to have that confirmed in dozy semi-consciousness.) And I take this as a good thing.

I know we’re in a “guilt is a useless feeling” pop-culture phase, but as the emotion that should follow wrongdoing, it has its place in the human experience. It’s a precursor for accountability, for genuine apology, for behaviour change and reconciliation if it’s needed and possible. With its partners, empathy and remorse, it forms a collective of responses considered necessary to social cohesion. Without it, we’re oblivious to the consequences of our actions.

So, my problem isn’t with guilt per se. It’s with where guilt is directed on the daily in the hearts and minds of innocent folks.

Take something as simple as eating a pudding or taking a break. “Guilt-free dessert” and “clean eating”, the pushers of toxic food marketing proclaim; or the “guilty pleasure” you indulge in if you take time off after tackling the work, the kids, the house, the admin, the exercise, ad infinitum.

With its partners, empathy and remorse, guilt forms a collective of responses considered necessary to social cohesion

Guilt is the child of many cultures, but in mine its face is defined by Christianity’s Seven Deadly Sins – Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, and Lust – all of which are so open to interpretation and manipulation as to make it dangerous to mental health. Depending on who you talk to, a wrongdoing – a sin to feel guilty about – could be leaving an unhappy marriage, feeling sexy or good about yourself, valuing your career, getting angry when someone violates your boundaries … more so if you’re a woman.

The landscape of guilt is so vast and textured in all the ways we’re supposed to feel bad about ourselves that, left untamed, it can easily reorganise itself into a new kind of hell: shame.

Soon, we forget there’s a difference between the two.

It was a real a-ha moment when I learned that guilt is “I have done something wrong”, while shame is “I am wrong”. But when you’ve been raised to believe that what you do, believe, or want is wrong, everything you are becomes wrong. And the consequences of that are catastrophic for your well being. As Brené Brown points out: shame is the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging”.

What a cruel belief.

Yet, based on twisted notions of sin and guilt, people innocent of real crimes suffer this nightmare shame and alienation daily. And that’s the real damage done by useless guilt.

If nothing else, the best we can do with it is to use it as a marker for healing: grab those guilty feelings by the scruff and find what they’re really hiding. Because if there’s no blood on the floor (or dripping from the ceiling), no one’s dead, and no one’s irreparably harmed by your actions, guilt is simply a moment to respond to and grow from.

And, now that I think about it, that’s pretty useful.

Photo by Carson Masterson on Unsplash and this was the final column for the April issue of Woman&Home.