Feeling guilty? Question your assumptions!

As it begins to get really quiet here at the beach, and the holidays draw near, decisions regarding travel, family visits and time spent with friends can sometimes be tinged with one, common feeling: guilt. In spite of all the jokes (‘What? You can’t call your mother once in a while? Fine. I’ll suffer!’), countless negative emotions and psychological problems stem from unearned guilt. Unearned guilt comes from taking responsibility for something that you did not directly cause, or for something over which you had no control.

Though the distinction between earned and unearned guilt is certainly quite logical, many of our cultural institutions are not always so logical. If we fail to think carefully and critically about the issue of guilt, we can develop symptoms such as depression and anxiety.

In my experience, the vast majority of individuals who are psychologically distressed tend to take too much responsibility for things they cannot control, and too little responsibility for things they can control. A man drinks an excessive amount of alcohol, for example, because he worries about whether he will be able to send his infant son to college in eighteen years. A woman worries constantly about whether her new boyfriend will cheat on her, and in the process she becomes irritable and obnoxious in his presence. A student obsesses on what his final grade will be, to the detriment of his assignments and activities.

Once you have a grip on what you can and cannot control, the issue of responsibility becomes less of a problem. As a result, the man who drinks too much will realize that he can’t control future tuition fees; the best he can do is work hard and save as much money as possible. The woman who worries about her boyfriend cheating knows that she has no evidence of infidelity; so she resolves to enjoy every moment with him. The student who dwells on his final grade will understand that he creates his grade by the level of concentration he applies to his schoolwork.

Now we can face the issue of guilt. Imagine that you have achieved a college degree, and you are offered a high-paying job. One of your close friends, who graduated with you, is having a hard time finding a job. He says to you, “It must be nice to have a good job lined up!” You notice that you feel kind of guilty. If you fail to examine this guilt—and determine whether it has any basis in reality—you might be tempted to downplay your achievement, even to yourself. You might think: “I guess I really am just star-crossed and lucky. Things always seem to work out for me.” Consequently, you will always feel a little guilty for your success.

But what about the fact that you may have actually earned the better job, and that it was not merely “luck” or “fate?” If you look at yourself and your friend objectively, you might discover that you sent out twice as many resumes as he did. Or, maybe you made a better presentation at an interview. The point is that you earned your accomplishment, and you made it happen. While you might feel some compassion for your friend in his struggle to find a job, you will not—and should not—feel any measure of guilt for your own success. There is no virtue, or psychological benefit, in feeling that way.

How can you ensure that you will not suffer from unearned guilt? The answer is simple: Question your assumptions. If someone says to you, “It must be nice to have such a big house,” and you feel guilty, then immediately question the basis of the guilt. Did you purchase the house through unethical means, or did you really earn it? Or, if your child says, “You are an abusive mother,” question this before you let yourself feel guilty. Is your child calling you abusive because you physically assault him, or because you will not allow him to use the car until he does better in school? Once again, all of this seems like common sense. But most people don’t take the time to question their basic assumptions.

Keep in mind, too, that the idea of unearned guilt has powerful cultural roots. Many of us are carefully taught, from a very early age, that we are not only responsible for our own errors, but also for the errors of those who went before us. Ideas such as these are very powerful and deep-rooted, even if you do not think of them very often. It should not be surprising, therefore, that you carry such invalid assumptions into your everyday, adult life. The good news is, with a little work and vigilance, you canexercise your choice to think differently, and reward yourself with the happiness and independence of a life free of undeserved guilt.