Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Guilt

Guilt is an ambiguous thing. It can be a healthy feeling of regret and the need to put something right. Or it can be a hopeless neurosis, a constant brooding over past mistakes.

Men are assumed to be low on guilt, just ploughing ahead regardless and not too worried about the consequences of what they do. Anyone who objects is seen as an oversensitive fuss-butt, unable to deal with real life.

Women are thought to be guilt-ridden, forever wondering if they've caused offence or not been generous enough or treated someone badly. They're always ready to apologise, declare their own shortcomings and make frantic amends.

I have to say I follow the male pattern here. I seldom feel guilty and I tend to think that if something I do causes some unexpected disaster or distresses someone, it's really just bad luck. Of course I'll do what I can to put things right, but I don't lose any sleep over it and I don't beat myself up over my miscalculations.

It occurs to me though that if men were a bit more prone to guilt, a lot of the horrendous massacres and barbarities they've carried out across the world wouldn't have happened. If they could feel a shred of human empathy with the victims of their atrocities, they wouldn't be capable of them.

But too much guilt can paralyse a person and make them so timid and hesitant their whole life stalls. They blame themselves for everything and can't accept that shit happens despite the best of intentions.

A smattering of guilt helps us to be civilised. But too much of it can be a millstone.

PS: Is there a difference between regret (feeling you did something wrong) and guilt (feeling bad about it)?

20 comments:

Baino said...

Ah Nick took me years to alleviate all sorts of guilt for many silly things. I still tend to be the one who apologises for taking things the wrong way, wanting to make amends often where none are required but it's better. I agree, some should feel pangs of guilt for their lack of action or bad behaviour whether it will stop the atrocaties of the world? I doubt it. A smattering is indeed sobering.

Nick said...

Baino - Indeed, that strange urge to make amends when none are required. And of course women often feel forced to apologise to make the peace when the man refuses to do so.

Grannymar said...

Some women were born feeling guilty. I worried more about the things I didn't do rather than those I did. Now I just paddle my way through life and those who do not like it can take another route!

Macy said...

Nope.. I am a guilt free zone. Which either means I've led a blameless life, or an incredibly thick skin.
Regrets though, I do do a lot of regretting.

Nick said...

Grannymar - I do agree, those who don't like my route can always find another one!

Macy - A guilt-free zone, that sounds good. A thick skin can be very helpful, as long as it's not rhinoceros-thick.

e said...

Nick,

I rarely feel guilty, either, though I have a few regrets.

Wisewebwoman said...

The only time I feel guilt Nick is for my own good fortune when others of my friends have had to struggle and suffer and live with disastrous life changing decisions.
XO
WWW

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Brilliant post, Nick! I was manipulated by my parents into obedience by constant guilt. It is indeed a millstone, but a very hard one to get rid of because even after ones parents are gone, their reprimands, safely ensconced in our own minds, continue to control us to some degree. I think your suggestion that a little guilt might make the world more civilized is so well-stated.

Nick said...

e - "Regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention...." That shows my age, doesn't it?

www - Yes, I feel a bit like that as well. Jenny and I have had some amazing bits of luck over the years and I'm very conscious of other people's misfortunes.

Nick said...

Heart - Indeed, all those internalised parental messages that keep putting the brakes on. Easy to see how irrational they are, not so easy to ignore them.

Hullaballoo said...

I often feel guilty and it is helpful, as long as I don't immediately act on the feeling.

Nick said...

Hulla - Hello stranger! Are you saying that an instant response is probably the wrong one? Or that the guilty feeling may be mistaken and there's nothing much to be guilty about? I think the second often applies. We may think we've mortally offended someone but it turns out they're not bothered at all.

secret agent woman said...

I contacted someone I was briefly involved with 25 years ago. He told me he'd always wondered if he'd offended me and then never got a chance to apologize. It was ironic because I had always felt a little bad about the way I ended it because he was so nice.

Nick said...

Secret Agent - I think that happens quite often when people drift apart, each person thinking they've seriously offended the other.

Liz said...

Every now and again I can suddenly be struck by guilt for something I did 20, 30, 40 years ago. I think it probably needs to be dealt with if it becomes a problem but in some cases it's just too late (if the other person has died for example).

Guilt can be very hard to be rid of though.

Nick said...

Liz - My memory's so erratic I can hardly remember what I did 20 years ago, let alone be guilty about it! And if anyone should feel guilty of bad behaviour, it's probably my bosses or the noisy neighbours, not me!

Val said...

Many of your posts give me a lot to think about, Nick, this one being no exception. I've been pondering this one since first reading it.

The people who commit atrocities tend not to have much in the way of human sensibilities, in the first place. Instinct and 'animal nature' takes over (the natural world is full of murders when you come to think of it, they're just committed by creatures that look much cuter, in the main, that we humans do. I suspect that if war criminals and terrorists looked like fluffy little bunnies, or pussy cats, history might have been quite different).

Personally speaking, I have a tendency to feel guilt over things I didn't do and feel I should have done, rather than things I did and felt I shouldn't have done. I suppose the usual ones that a lot of other people feel, apply also to me. Like my not having visited my dad much when he was living alone towards the end of his life and then being told by a friend of his, after he died, that he was 'lonely' and had wished I'd visited more often. That hurt (though I suspect it was meant to) and I still feel guilty about it. Guilt's an emotion that can certainly get out of hand. I do think (as you do) that we need a bit of it though... or at least, something approximating to it, called conscience.

Nick said...

Val - It's funny though, terrorists can have acute sensibilities in some areas but none at all in others. Like Hitler being a vegetarian and hating any form of cruelty to animals. And the old cliché about gangsters loving their mums.

I can understand the remark about your father feeling lonely and unvisited making you feel hurt and guilty. But then again, if he hadn't made it clear to you he was lonely, you wouldn't have known to visit more often.

Yes, conscience is something we all need, a sense of right and wrong. Some children seem never to have been taught how to distinguish properly between the two.

Val said...

Er... I don't know about Hitler having been Vegetarian (and people are vegetarian for different reasons anyway) but his hating any form of cruelty to animals is not quite right as the Nazis were trained to look after puppies and then, when they were fond of them, they had to kill them.
:(

Nick said...

Val - There are different accounts of his attitude to animals, but some sources say he couldn't bear to watch scenes in movies that involved cruelty to animals.