Everything You've Been Taught about Guilt Is Wrong

Speaking of baby boomers, I'm reading the book Split: Stories from a Generation Raised on Divorce, by Ava Chin. In the introduction the author mentions that when a divorced and happily remarried mother of a friend of hers learned about Ms. Chin's book project, she asked, "Will it make already guilty-feeling parents feel even more guilty?"

Ms. Chin then writes: I was both surprised and appalled. (How self-centered our baby-boomer parents could be!)

Indeed. That's one of my points in the previous post. Here's a woman around my age (I'm 41) who wants to understand and help women avoid the same mistakes their parents did -- you'd think that'd be a good thing -- and the response from a baby boomer is all about the parents of these women. The boomer philosophy is simple: Thou shalt not make anyone, women in particular, feel guilty about their life choices.

How did this happen? Simple. The boomer philosophy I discussed in the last post -- the ethic of being "true to oneself" as opposed to adhering to a universal moral order that makes demands on us -- eradicates any semblance of guilt. Think about it. If every decision we make is ultimately the right one because at the time we made it we felt good about it and were simply being true to ourselves, then no one can ever be blamed for making a bad decision. If, on the other hand, we admit we made a bad decision and that the decision was wrong, then we must take responsibility for it. But modern liberals don't believe in personal responsibility. They don't want people to ever feel bad about themselves; to them this is the hallmark of a bad society. But the truth is, without our consciences we're no different from animals. Guilt is good. Guilt keeps us in check. Guilt builds character. We should be proud of -- and embrace -- our ability to feel guilt.

Needless to say, this is not a popular philosophy today. Guilt is considered very bad, and something to rid oneself of. Look at any newsstand in America and you'll find scores of editors who're trying to convince the public that guilt has no place in their lives. No matter what the subject -- food, sex, marriage, motherhood -- women should not feel an ounce of guilt. Ever.

Naturally, motherhood gets the most attention. Consider this: In the current issue of Working Mother magazine (June/July 2009) is a cover story of a working mother who describes the day she left her 8-month old baby in day care while she went to work. The previous five months, this woman's family -- her husband, mother, grandmother, sisters, and aunts -- stepped in to care for the baby; and the woman felt (understandably so) perfectly at ease. Then came the inevitable: day care. She describes the first day she dropped off her baby as "one of the hardest" days of her life. When she handed her baby over to this perfect stranger in an unfamiliar place, she said he turned to her, held out his hands begging her not to leave him, and "cried as if I was abandoning him." The mother said she cried all the way to work and was emotionally bereft. But eventually, she says, she resigned herself to the fact that she was "not going to be the best mom in the world, or even try to be."

There are thousands of stories like hers. And what's the message? That it's perfectly normal, preferable even, to ignore the natural voices inside your head that cause people extreme emotional anguish.

Yet this "voice" is our conscience talking to us. The emotions that accompany our actions are warning signs -- not of doom and gloom, necessarily, but in a "maybe this isn't such a good idea" kind of way. We must listen. Unfortunately, modern society encourages just the opposite. Rather than suggest people listen to their inner voices, as people did years ago before guilt became a bad word, they suggest people force themselves through the pain -- until it eventually dissipates. And it does dissipate eventually -- after it gets tired of trying to be heard.

The common refrain from women in the media when it comes to guilt is that it's society's fault. Society is to blame for why people feel guilt. Hogwash. Guilt comes from within. It's natural. It's good.

Embrace the guilt.

2 Responses to “Everything You've Been Taught about Guilt Is Wrong”:

  1. We agree that guilt is a valid emotion. No one will ever be "guilt-free" nor should they. It does serve as a check and balance or an internal radar. There are internal and external inducers, but yes, how one chooses to feel is definitely up to each one of us. Other people do not *make* us feel guilty any more than other people *make* us angry. But how many times do you hear "you are making me mad!" Um no. That person is choosing to get mad or be mad. All feelings are to some extent a choice. At least for those of us, lke yours truly, who believe in reality therapy/cognitive based modalities of clinical treatment. : )

  2. That should be "like" your's truly. typed way too fast!