"As for the errors I make, the only punishment I acknowledge for having made them is my awareness of those errors, and having to live with it…,” writes Lebanese writer Joumana Haddad in her book I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman. Living with such awareness is certainly not easy. It results in a distressing emotion commonly known as guilt.
NASA engineer Robert Ebeling was plagued by guilt after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. He was one among the five booster rocket engineers who worked for NASA contractor Morton Thiokol. In fact, Ebeling was the first one to raise alarm a day before the launch. Yet, he felt accountable for the mission’s failure and the loss of seven astronauts’ lives. The engineer always felt he could have stopped that fateful launch. This burden led him to retire from an enviable position in NASA and tend to a bird refuge for the remainder of his life.
Clearly, guilt is triggered internally and the victim bears significant responsibility for his actions. Social psychologist Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory offers some insight into what causes guilt. Festinger says each of us has a deep-rooted idea about who we are and who we ought to be. We almost always strive to become an ideal version of ourselves. But whenever we are faced with a contradiction between our current self and our ideal self, we are internally disturbed. This is termed cognitive dissonance. It causes guilt–a form of mental stress and discomfort. Evidently, the feeling arises when we realise that we have not lived up to our standards. Often, a guilty person feels as if s/he has violated a moral code of conduct.
According to psychologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, many a time our less-than-perfect behaviours eventually become a thing of the past. We too may have noticed that many pangs of the moral conscience heal with time. For instance, a person who has had an extramarital affair or has extorted money from someone may feel shameful and guilty for a significant period. Eventually, s/he comes to terms with it, makes amends, and moves on.
Sometimes, like in the case of Ebeling, guilt doesn’t fade away. If left unchecked, Freud’s research reveals, a guilty person may indulge in masochistic practices. He may become self-punishing, or develop unhealthy habits such as drinking, smoking, overeating or even mismanaging money.
Excessive guilt is indeed detrimental to one’s mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. According to the study Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, here is how guilt can motivate someone to be a better person: Firstly, we do not like remorse and hence, we act in such a way that we feel less guilty. Secondly, guilt can help us understand where and how to make behavioural changes. It provides clarity as to what is acceptable and not acceptable conduct. A little bit of guilt prompts us to do good for ourselves and others.
Indeed, guilt is a delicate thread to tread upon. So how do we keep it under check? How do we ensure that it doesn’t make us feel useless? Psychiatrist Dr David Burns in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy suggests some ways to manage guilt effectively:
Stop magnifying: Many a time, we punish ourselves for our wrongdoings. Often, the severe punishment we award ourselves does not fit our trivial crime.
Us vs our actions: While we are responsible for our actions, it is important to remember that the actions themselves don’t make us bad people.
Self-compassion: Forgiving ourselves make us better. It helps us accountable. On the other hand, branding ourselves bad only makes us act worse.
Apologise: Apologies make a difference. People often prefer a simple ‘sorry’ over any other kind of compensation. But when saying sorry, let’s make sure to apologise for what others think we did wrong. Not what we think we did wrong. We often tend to overthink our mistakes.
The lesson to learn: Mistakes happen. But torturing ourselves doesn’t make us better people. Learning from mistakes helps us become better individuals.