Stoic strategies for daily living — 11
What is ‘guilt’?
Guilt is the belief that you have caused some harm to someone — including to yourself — by doing something you should not have done. It may range from casual rumor-mongering to something considerably more serious. In many cultures, guilt is deliberately induced in children and others so they will conform to social, cultural, and religious norms. When we grow up, we internalize this and admonish ourselves for whatever we think we shouldn’t have done and feel guilty. It is a way of punishing ourselves. Sometimes we may feel guilty about things that we have no direct part in causing such as social conditions in a poor country.
In this article, we will discuss those negative feelings we can experience when we believe we have done something wrong or something we wish we hadn’t done that might be embarrassing to us or possibly harmful to others.
Common types of guilt
Here are some reasons why we feel guilty and what to do about them.
1. Results we didn’t intend
Sometimes we do things with good intentions, but it turns out that we are mistaken in either our intent or our approach. We feel guilty because the results of what we did are embarrassing. Yet, at the time we made the decision, we did what we thought to be the best.
It seemed so to him. — Epictetus, Enchiridion, 42
2. Remorse over lack of self-control
Sometimes we feel guilty over something we did, knowing at the time of action that it might not be the best thing to do. In other words, it did not seem to be the right thing to do even when we did it. For example, we may do something as a result of losing our temper but almost simultaneously realize that it is the wrong thing to do. We may do things that are advantageous to us but not necessarily to others. In other words, we do things not because we think they are the right things to do but because we lack self-control or act selfishly in a way that affects others negatively.
3. Private guilt that no one cares about it
And there is one more thing to think about. We sometimes feel guilty about things others haven’t even noticed and, if they had, would not care about. In other words, people feel guilty about things that do not matter to anyone. We may also feel guilty about things long after everyone has forgotten them.
4. Guilt about not feeling guilty
Our feeling of guilt can be so strong (especially because of our early conditioning) that even when we realize that we have not caused any harm or hurt anyone and stop feeling guilty about it, we feel guilty about not feeling guilty.
Applying the first rule of Stoicism
No matter why you feel guilty and what you feel guilty about, the Stoic solution is the same. If something has already happened, it is not under your control anymore. The first rule of Stoicism is that if something is not under your control, it is nothing to you. You may resolve not to repeat your behavior in the future, but for what you are feeling guilty now, you can do nothing. Feeling guilty is a waste of time. It can only ruin the present, without doing anything to change the past.
More on the Stoic solution
What should we do now?
We must first get our heads out of the past (and out of the future as well). Our pain of guilt is the result of our hanging on to something that is not even present.
Past and future are both absent; we feel neither of them. But there can be no pain except as the result of what you feel .- Seneca, Epistulae Morales AD Lucilium (Moral Letters), 54
If you examine yourself, you will see that you are trying to punish yourself for something that is beyond your control. All you have control over is your intention, not the result. So, as long as your intention is good, you have nothing to feel guilty about. If you still continue to feel guilty, it is almost like some part of you enjoys being punished.
Souls that enjoy being sick and that seize upon excuses for sorrow are saddened by events long past and erased from the records. — Seneca, Epistulae Morales AD Lucilium (Moral Letters), 54
Suppose you feel guilty about you did something that no one cares about or feel guilty about not feeling guilty, ask yourself,
“What is so unbearable or intolerable about this?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.
Remember, it is neither the past nor the future that’s weighing you down. It’s only the present — even its effect can be minimized. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.36. (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Book 8.36)
Finally, if you actually had done something because you lacked self-control, such cases, ask yourself “What virtue did I neglect in doing so?”
The virtue of justice
Most likely the virtue you neglected to observe is the virtue of justice. You were perhaps unfair to someone. Going forward, you may want to be more conscious of this. Do all in your power to repair what you have neglected to do or undo the harm you might have caused others. It is much more productive to follow virtue than feel guilty for not following it.