How I Think Pathological Guilt Works

“If I do something wrong, I have to feel bad about it forever.”

I used to believe that, and that belief has been on my mind because I really don’t believe it anymore, and I was just talking to someone who expressed pretty much that exact belief.

I’ve heard people say, “I can forgive, but I won’t forget.” My past self would have said almost the opposite. I couldn’t forgive myself, and, while I didn’t actually forget, I would mostly forget to think about the things I felt bad about.

And here’s one big problem with doing that. Let’s say I do something I feel terrible about. Since I can’t forgive myself, my strategy was instead to just turn my attention away from the sensation of guilt. I didn’t see another option. But then, guilt all feels similar. So, when I do something else wrong in the future, it’ll trigger that same old guilt. And again, the only plan is to look away. I can’t actually process much about the situation at hand.

The other thing that’s wrong with this model of the world is that it’s just wrong. When I actually look directly at my guilt and ask it what it wants me to do, I get an answer. And sure, it’ll feel bad, but not for very long. My experience tells me that emotions that are properly processed should usually last seconds. Maybe minutes. For something big, like the death of someone close to you, there won’t just be one emotion to feel, and grief can take a while. But coming to terms with something crappy you’ve done shouldn’t take more than a day at most, the way I see it.

My experience also tells me that for most people, at least 90% of their guilt will be explained by <20 discrete incidents, many of which happened before 20 years old. That’s how it seemed to work for me. I used to feel guilty most of the time about all sorts of stuff. Coming to terms with maybe 10 incidents reduced the overall load a lot. I’ve seen this with other people too.

If you gotten this far, notice whether any specific memories from your life came up while reading this. The person I was talking to about this last had one memory come up pretty soon into my explanation of my model. If something did come up, look into it more. If you’re not sure to do it, let me know because I could write about that next week. I don’t think it’s that complicated.

  • Alice A

    Do you have any thoughts on searching for the incidents accounting for the most guilt, if nothing obvious is coming up right away? I have a lot of chronic guilt, but on the surface it feels more like the combined weight of all kinds of little things I’ve always been in the habit of feeling permanently a bit guilty about, stuff like unfinished projects and unanswered emails and missed deadlines and failed aspirations and responsibilities not properly discharged, plus the ongoing day-to-day feelings of inadequate accomplishment and general inadequacy. Definitely curious if there are indeed a few major unprocessed incidents underlying a lot of this…

    • I’d try asking yourself what the earliest ones are, but I do find that getting myself into a curious introspective state first is important.