Understanding the Dynamics of Guilt

By | 09/11/2015

Guilt is an internal brake that originates from an ability we develop between the ages of 6 and 7, of putting ourselves in someone else’s place and imagining how they feel. Once we realize they are struggling, and we believe we caused their pain, it makes us sad; we feel the same unhappiness we imagine we’ve caused, increased by the anguish of knowing ourselves to be responsible for it.

We do our best to avoid guilty feelings, as they cause a lot of pain. Thus, guilt becomes a crucial moral brake, one that limits our behavior. We can’t mistreat anyone, nor behave in a manner that violates their rights—after all, if we do, we’ll suffer, too. Many people are unable to feel guilt; their behavior is controlled by fear of punishment—whether human or divine. Their brakes are external; people who can experience guilt are controlled by their personal code, which is more exacting and complex. People who do experience guilt tend to be less contentious and more self-restrained, out of consideration for other people.

So let’s see just how complicated it gets when people who can experience guilt enter a relationship with people who cannot—that is to say, selfish or egocentrical people. Here is how it goes: the selfish person asks for something; the generous person says no. The selfish person pouts—more often than not, it’s merely an act. The generous person feels guilty, because they believe they are responsible for their partner’s suffering, so they end up caving to the pressure. But what happened was that the generous person just shouldered a burden that wasn’t theirs to carry. Their selfish partner had just made a scene because of a whim, and if the person who, by nature, is more generous, doesn’t figure out this dynamic, they’ll end up constantly capitulating to their partner’s caprices, in detriment of their own rights.

Guilt should only work as a brake when we are truly responsible for causing pain to other people; we shouldn’t feel guilty for fighting for ourselves, neither should we give something up just because someone else wants it. If the conditions are equal, there’s nothing wrong in doing our best to win; success should bring guilt, even if the person who lost does everything they can to affect us. In equal conditions, better them losing, than us.

Making someone feel guilty is emotional blackmail; people who do it exaggerate their feelings and suffering to get their way. They are selfish, and try to impose their whims on those who are not strong enough to resist them. Emotional coercion of this kind is just as cruel and immoral as pointing a gun to force someone to do their will.

Understanding the dynamics of guilt is essential, so this moral brake only affects our behavior when it is, in fact, warranted.

Tradução: Amanda Morris