Guilt and its sibling emotion of shame are emotions that I feel are generally useless. Most of my experiences with this emotion can be summed up in the title of Manuel Smith’s book, “When I Say ‘No’, I Feel Guilty” (1975). I usually view guilt as a form of manipulation: something people do to get you to do what they want you to do.
In studying what motivates people, Sociologist David Riesman divided individuals into three personality types. One is the tradition-oriented person who does things the way they have always been done. They feel guilt or shame if they break a traditional rule. An example would be a “traditional” woman who has to work outside the home. She would feel guilty for ignoring her children, husband, and house by working.
Two is the inner-directed person who is someone controlled by their conscience. What they were taught as right and wrong, they internalize. They have an ideal that they aspire to, and try to live up to it. An example would be a man taking a long lunch whilst at work. He would feel guilty for taking too much time away from a job, where he is trusted to work for certain hours.
The third is the other-directed person who is more fluid about what is wrong and right, since they depend on the people around them for social cues. Riesman said “the other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed.” An other-directed person would not feel guilty going through a Stop Sign since “everyone does it.”
However other-directed people are the people who “when they say ‘no’, feel guilty”, since, they are easily manipulated by others. By being raised in a family who used disapproval to discipline, an other-directed person often feels guilt when they refuse to honor a request. Simply by saying ‘no’ will trigger feelings of this emotion.
Having lived in Japan, I experienced how a non-Western culture decides what they consider to be wrong-doing. In this culture, the group’s ethos determines the individual’s feelings of shame. Meanwhile within Western culture, the Judeo-Christian ethos is instilled in the individual thereby making the group unimportant. In both societies, what is a guilty or shameful act differs. A crying baby disturbing the neighbors brings feelings of shame within Japanese society. However within Western society, excessive noise does not trigger any guilty feelings.
Investigating the emotion of guilt, I realized that it is a secondary emotion which combines self-pity and self-hate. Guilt then becomes self-punishment since the person believes that they deserve whatever happens to them. Their guilt is focused on “me as a failure”. In this way, guilt then becomes a form of control.
In trying to further understand guilt, I looked up the synonyms. They ranged from “accountability, blame, chagrin, crime, fault, mortification, and self-reproach.” Where do these emotions come from? Are they from within or are they decided upon by the group you find yourself in?
In trying to construct a useful definition of guilt, I rely upon the ancient Roman concept of “pietas”, which has two parts to it. The first is the maintenance of good relations with others, institutions, ancestors, and Gods. The second is the sense of duty to maintain good morals. Together, “pietas” gives a sense of ethical behavior for the self and others.
The ancient Roman concept of “pietas” overcomes “false” guilt. Right relations amongst people means stop at Stop Signs since not to do so would endanger the lives of others. “True” guilt is then derived from being accountable to yourself and others. Self-care and honesty are elements of “pietas” as much as integrity.
An episode of “Martha Speaks” (Design Studios, 2008 - ), a PBS children’s program, discusses guilt and shame. In “Martha and the Canine Caper” (107a), Martha, the dog, accidently helps some stray dogs commit a crime. The words featured in this episode are “blame, conceal, confess, distressed, and shame.” When Martha discovered that these dogs robbed the butcher, she feels shame. She realizes that this emotion comes from her actions, which had harmed her friend, the butcher. To end her distress, Martha confesses to her owner, Helen, what she has done. Her confession leads to the arrest of the dogs, and Martha begins to feel better. This episode is an example of “true” guilt. Martha realizes that even though she did not actually rob the butcher, she was still culpable.