Turning Guilt from Mortal Enemy to Best Friend

Are you burdened by an acute sense of happiness-clobbering guilt? Does the pain of shame rear its ugly head just about every time you start feeling okay about yourself? Maybe a little clarity can help lift some of the fog.

3 Types of Guilt

There are, in a sense, really three different kinds of guilt with significant differences in source and effect. Read on to see what I mean.

1. Social Guilt

Social guilt is the public shame a society attaches to behavior deemed unacceptable for public consumption. It is the guilt associated with violations of social standards of conduct. Social guilt makes you feel bad about spitting on sidewalks or motivates desirable social behavior like keeping lawns mowed and giving up seats to the elderly on a bus. The problem is when society accepts bad ideas, like the black codes of segregation in the U.S. and public mores in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

2. Degrading Guilt

This is a self-imposed kind of guilt that goes right by self-correction straight to self-condemnation. It’s the kind that says, “Not only did I do that, I am that! It’s not that I’ve sinned, I’m a sinner. It’s not that I’ve done something trashy, I am trash. I’m good for nothing. Why bother even trying anymore?” It is self-assigned guilt expressed as self-defeat and self-abuse. It inspires nothing but surrender and self-pity and self-disgust. Self-worth is attacked and demoralized. It is wholly negative and crippling and leads to nothing positive.

3. Instructive Guilt

Then there is the guilt that may be the uninvited intruder, but is a friend and ally nonetheless. This form of guilt is the moral discomfort we feel when we violate universal principles of morality. It is guilt unadorned, free from the added weight of self-abuse or social pathologies. It is the voice of conscience and is spiritual in nature and intent. It is a light in the darkness of moral indecision or moral lapse. It is the pangs of a conscience that has been compromised.

An analogy:

When I was about 25 years old, newly married and poor, I fried the engine in my Honda Civic. How? I ignored the oil warning light. Well, truth be told, I didn’t actually ignore it as much as I failed … continually … to do anything about it. Okay, I ignored it. But I was busy! I was working a job at night and going to school full time. There were books to read, papers to write, exams to study for, a degree to earn. Who had time for oil?

The Dashboard of our Souls

That, my friends, is the role of instructive guilt: It’s the warning light on the dashboard of our souls. It warns and instructs. It motivates goodness and discourages indecent behavior. It can play an important part in our personal development as we travel life’s path toward more happiness as it nudges us when something is amiss in our lives.

It is the heat of the stove that keeps us from serious burn … if we heed its warnings. I didn’t heed the light on my car dashboard and lost a very expensive engine. But it was only an engine. It hurt, but was replaceable. But ignoring instructive guilt can lead to far worse consequences, some of which are not so easily fixed.

Differentiating Guilt

But how do we discern one from the other? The simple answer is that it really does come down to practice. The more time we spend nurturing our conscience and responding to the promptings we receive to stop doing something or start doing something long neglected, the better we will be able to recognize one inner voice from another.

But there are a few habits or practices we can work on to quiet the self-destructive voice of self-inflicted guilt and shame and amp up the volume of the spiritual voice of conscience a bit.

3 Ways of Developing a Finely-tuned Spiritual Conscience

1. Read deeply and regularly from wisdom, scriptural and moral literature. By connecting with moral and spiritual principles, the heart’s sensitivity to the conscience is strengthened. It will also school your conscience, waking it to moral standards and universal principles. Connecting with literature that inspires and instructs and reminds and motivates the higher values in ethics and morals helps fine-tune the conscience and sharpen our spiritual ears to how the conscience “speaks” to us and to what it says.

2. Listen to the inner whisper of your conscience whenever you feel prompted to do something good. The more you listen and act, the more you will be able to discern the difference between the self-talk of self-induced guilt from spiritual insight working through your conscience. As you practice what your conscience nudges you to do, you will come to trust it more and it will repay you by guiding you to even greater truths.

3. Pray and meditate on moral principles and ethical values and on your own state of spirituality. This will also help connect you to your conscience, making you more in-tune with that inner light.

Happy Rewards to a Well-honed Conscience

A conscience that works the way it was meant to work is one that will help keep us living well, treating others kindly, signaling where and when we fall short of universal values of decency and prompting improvement. This way, the machinery of our lives will stay well-oiled, the engine well-maintained, and life filled with more joy, more peace and more happiness.

What do you think?

  • Have you suffered under the weight of an over-active sense of guilt?
  • Or have you been helped by a friendlier version?
  • I would love to hear from you!
  • Please share your thought in the comments.