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How Do You Plead? Guilty or Not Guilty?

by Cate Russell-Cole  
11/02/2015 / Self Help


Guilt is my middle name. I feel guilty for not being more than I am, for letting opportunities pass me by, for not having enough energy to do everything, for not being perfect...I feel guilty for not being best at everything, because merely being good at some things is not good enough. I feel guilty for being emotional and spacey and focussed and eccentric rather than calm and cool and organised... I feel guilty about aluminium cans and eating meat and using cleaning chemicals and having three children and driving a car - ecoguilt. However, I am still not guilty enough to change my bad habits. I feel guilty for liking myself even though I am convinced I've failed completely at being perfect."

We all carry a substantial burden of guilt, both consciously and unconsciously, myself included. This quote got me thinking about what I feel guilty about, and I was surprised at how paltry some of those incidents are in reality. Still, they have significance to me, so I carry the weight. Dealing with guilt, or just trying to find a way to get rid of it, seems impossible, especially as the ever changing expectations of us as wives, mothers, daughters and planet-friendly citizens mount up and become confusing. How do you do the right thing by everyone, all the time? Yes, it's impossible, but we still attempt it. I admit I tie myself in knots trying so hard to be perfect.

The most complex problem is, how do we work out when feeling guilty isn't right, and when should we genuinely and justifiably be sorry? In his book "The Public Emotions: From Mourning to Hope," Australian author Graham Little says, "Being found legally or morally guilty is a different matter from the 'guilt feelings' we talk about with our friends and therapists, and 'feeling guilty' is not the same as being sinful in the eyes of a priest or being thought immoral by a philosopher." Its clear cut and reasonable to expect some form of judgement and punishment for committing a crime. Say if you steal, break traffic regulations placed there for safety, or even if you hurt someone out of jealousy or vengeful motives. There are times when we do need to stop, recognise what we've done, and change our attitudes or actions. The guilt that seems to penetrate the deepest though, is the guilt that centres on things we have done, or choices we have made where we may have been morally or ethically wrong, or even quite right, but we still carry a sense of blame.

Kathy wrote: "That's what my parents have always told me anyway, that guilt is a wasted emotion. But they're awfully good at teaching me to waste emotion then! I feel guilty for not wanting to move back to my home town, for playing when I should be working, for working too hard when I should be socialising... for not cleaning my house..." Guilt takes root when we go against other's expectations, or our best expectations of ourself. Both can be realistic or unrealistic, and both can add up to a back-breaking emotional bondage that stops us from enjoying our lives, and feeling good about ourselves. The best, but often the hardest course of action to take to relieve our guilt, is to take a long, honest look at the situation. Step back from the emotions being bought to the surface, and decide "is this justified? Am I honestly guilty of doing something damaging and wrong?" If you are wrong, realistically, what can you do about it?

Sometimes you can right a wrong, apologise, reconcile, smooth over hurts or repair physical or emotional damage. Sometimes you can't. Be encouraged to do what you can when it's called for, but realise you not only need the forgiveness of the wounded party; you also need to forgive yourself. Wrong is wrong, and it isn't good to hurt others, but also have enough compassion for yourself (without letting yourself off scot free) to try and understand the circumstances and influences you were under, were at the time. How did they affect you? Was there any way in which you could have handled things better, or was it just one of those things? It is a great asset to have a good, rock solid set of moral standards and ethics that guide the way you behave. Sometimes though, kindness and flexibility in a difficult situation, has a greater long-term value than rigidity.

There will always be 'shoulds' and rules in our lives. The purpose of them is to keep us safe, and in some kind of order. There will always be destructive rule breakers, and also people that aren't evil, but sometimes just don't get it right. God gave us a clear set of rules for our own protection. He realises too that we are human, we're imperfect and we're going to make some mistakes. God's desire is to heal us, change us for the better and set us free, so we don't hurt ourselves or others again. We can choose to live in fear, or under guilt and a need for punishment, or we can learn from our mishaps, and let His love into our hearts to set us free from our shame. Sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is have a quiet talk to God, the ultimate and fairest Law-giver and Judge, and then we can go forward forgiven, freer and wiser. We can lay the burden of our guilt behind, and shake off our chains.

This article by Cate Russell-Cole is under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Written in Australian English.

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