Why Unearned Guilt is the Worst of All

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“The worst guilt is to accept an unearned guilt,” said philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand.

What makes unearned guilt so bad?

When you accept unearned guilt, you hurt yourself. You take responsibility for something you did not cause. Many things are caused by others. Many things are caused by nobody in particular. Sometimes, nobody is to blame. Some things simply are.

By accepting responsibility for what you do not control, you place the burden of the world, or someone else, on your shoulders. This greatly reduces both your capacity to handle your own burdens, and your ability to embrace/enjoy your own life. It’s a self-imposed, undeserved and grossly unfair injustice against yourself.

Accepting responsibility for what isn’t yours to control lessens responsibility for others. It makes the world a safer and more survivable place for those who take no responsibility for anything — the sociopaths, the narcissists and anyone else who sacrifices others.

You might think you’re doing a “good” thing, or doing your alleged “duty”, when you take on more than is yours. But the reverse is true. You make the world a worse place, not a better one, when you sacrifice yourself by accepting the burden of guilt for what is not yours.

How do you know when you’re guilty? When you did something wrong. “Wrong” must be clear! You’re not wrong or bad when you fail to make someone else happy. You’re not wrong or bad when you disappoint others. You’re only wrong or bad when you mean one thing while doing another, when you lie, when you steal, when you impose yourself or when you actively cause harm to another. You’re also wrong when you’re guilty of negligence, not for something you never promised to do, but for a commitment you freely took on.

Be clear with yourself what’s right and wrong. Never accept responsibility for what you cannot control. You don’t owe your promise or your commitments to anyone, other than yourself first. For your own sake you take on obligations of your choosing, and living up to those obligations you freely chose is important — for yourself, as well as for those you promise. But never listen to those who claim entitlement to something you never promised and therefore you do not owe them.

The world is full of people who do not seek to impose on you. Give people the benefit of the doubt until you know them. At the same time, the world is, sadly, full of people more than happy to take what’s not theirs and what’s yours. Not your property or your physical life so much as things that are just as much your own: your time, your mind, your efforts, your energy, your capability, your very self.

Don’t be a martyr and don’t be a victim. Unearned guilt is the way people steal your soul, not in one fell swoop like a thief or a murderer, but bit by painful and unjustified bit, throughout the hours and days of your life. Free yourself from unearned guilt, and you’ll become one of the freest persons alive.

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