The ability to feel guilty probably served a useful purpose at some time in our evolution. We are a social species and shame, guilt and fear of discovery of our transgressions would naturally help keep us in line and discourage us from committing them.
But we are no longer primitive, and self-interest and self-importance have long since allowed us to deftly excuse and explain away selfish behaviour. Nevertheless most of us, at least in what passes for ‘developed’ cultures, have been so effectively taught to feel guilt that it is an ingrained habit and a difficult one to put down.
Guilt shows itself as self-reproach for some (real or imagined) misdeed. It differs from shame in its pervasiveness and intensity. Whereas shame and remorse are usually linked to specific actions or events in a person’s life – things they have chosen to participate in – guilt is more general and all encompassing.
It generalises to the whole self, and can lead to a feeling of worthlessness where even one’s existence is an offence against something or other.
One of the unique features of guilt is that it is largely a private exercise. Most emotions provoke a noticeable response, even if these are fleeting and minimal, they are still visible, at least to the trained eye. With guilt there are no such universal facial expressions or other external signal that give clues to what one is experiencing.
This is understandable; As Paul Ekman says in his book Emotions Revealed, when feeling the emotions of guilt and shame “…the person does not want others to know how he or she feels.” If we are feeling guilty about something we’ve done we are hardly likely to want to advertise it.
And there’s the rub… punishing ourselves in private doesn’t even get us the payoff of public recognition of our penance. We suffer alone, and it does nothing to enhance our image nor raise our self esteem. Guilt is a largely redundant emotion.
Feeling shame for our actions, feeling contrite and wanting to make amends is as it should be, but living with a gnawing and discouraging sense of guilt is debilitating and in most cases out of place.
Ekman, P., (2003), Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, Times Book, New York