Unlike anger, which can be a call to action, guilt is more often a call to inaction, to sitting and brooding and blaming oneself and becoming more and more convinced that one is a) a terrible person and/or b) incapable of doing anything right.
Not only can you feel guilty about anything, but the emotion knows no time. It can get activated over something which happened fifty years ago or when one anticipates a future act. Odd as this may seem, the feeling of guilt when considering various choices has its origins in a natural and useful response to decision-making.
I first became aware of this function when reading The Nature of Personal Reality by Jane Roberts (who channeled the spirit guide, Seth). Seth said:
"Guilt is the other side of compassion. Its original purpose was to enable you to empathize on an aware level with yourself and other members of creaturehood, so that you could consciously control what was previously handled on a biological level alone. Guilt in that respect therefore has a strong natural basis, and when it is perverted, misused or misunderstood, it has that great terrifying energy of any runaway basic phenomenon."
Natural guilt enables a human to choose to do consciously what the animal does on a subconscious level. The early hunters, for example, used all parts of the animals they killed: as food, clothing, tools, etc. They also invoked their sense of oneness with all life by thanking the spirit of a killed animal for feeding them and their families, and by praying for its joy in the next world.
Imagine a hunter coming across an animal at a time when the tribe or clan had an abundance of food. Though his/her hand might automatically slip to a weapon (sh)he would most likely pause to anticipate the consequences and sense that to kill would be a violation of natural balance and harmony.
Natural guilt is a helpful guide for avoiding behavior which takes us out of harmony with other sentient beings. Humankind as a whole lost that guide when it stopped believing that all life was sacred. Humans created distant deities who had the power of life and death over humans, and gave themselves the power of life and death over the rest of nature. We lost our sense of connectedness with all beings and forgot that any violation we committed against nature would rebound on us; thus we lost our direct access to a sense of natural guilt.
That sense didn't completely disappear. Just as Christianity appropriated pagan cultures' goddesses and gods and renamed them saints, so natural guilt turned into artificial guilt. While natural guilt is a warning to prevent future violations, artificial guilt is self-punishment for past ones.
Some religions created an elaborate hierarchy of acts for which one should feel guiltyãand even those who may have left those religions find that that the emotion of guilt is not so easily left. Whether formally religious or not, humans have learned to be guilty about sex, jealousy, eating too much, and having overdue library books. We have developed innovative rituals for blaming and punishing ourselves.
Artificial guilt is never-ending. Someone who overeats, for example, will usually feel guilty about overeating. Even as he finishes the last of the leftovers, sends out for pizza with everything, or finds himself hopelessly seduced by the aroma of hot pretzels as he innocently passes the stand, he is already punishing himself for his contemptible weakness. His self-hatred and self-disgust are so unbearable that he has to do something to alleviate it. That something is often more food.
One of the most common errors in this regard is to believe that by being guilty one is doing something to rectify a situation. The foundation for this believe often originates in childhood, when a child, who has committed what (s)he knows is a punishable offense, wails, in an attempt to avoid parental wrath, "I'm sorry, I'll never do it again."
What begins as a strategy becomes an automatic response. You eat that pizza, you yell at your kids because they're having their ninety-fourth fight of the evening (fill in whatever makes you feel guilty). Instead of saying you're sorry you feel guilty.
In advanced expressions of guilt people believe that feeling this emotion makes them good people. They know, with some dim ancestral memory, that there's something good about feeling this badly, but they can't remember what.
There is a way out of the guilt cycle. It involves retraining oneself to replace the feeling of guilt with that of responsibility.
The first step in this process is to become aware of what situations induce guiltãbecause sometimes the response of guilt is so automatic that you may only realize that you feel awful. When you feel awful ask yourself if you're guilty about something.
If you feel brave make a list of what induces guilt (and please don't feel guilty if you don't make a list). Making a list is a deliberate activity; it helps you to think about how you react to situations. If you can make your list with a sense of humor you may also find yourself able to laugh about something of the things which trigger your guilt reaction.
Another step is to realize that that you have a choice regarding your response (responsibility being the ability to respond). If you make a mistake at work, instead of feeling guilty see if you can figure out a way to prevent that mistake or a similar one from happening again.
If you feel guilty about something for which you can make amends (you yelled at the kids because you had a headache; you broke a promise) do so. The other person will feel better, and so will you.
If you feel guilty about something which happened a long time ago and it doesn't appear that amends can be made to an actual, living person you can still send out the intention of making amends. Write a letter, saying everything you did for which you're sorry. Promise that you'll never do it again. Address the envelope to the Universe, then burn the letter. A ceremony can be a powerful way of releasing the bonds of guilt.
While you're writing letters write one to yourself forgiving yourself. Write this letter with love, affection, and appreciation for yourself as someone who is a good person, a kind person, a spiritual person, and a person who occasionally is not perfect.
Because that's who you are.
The Bach Flower Remedy Pine is our foremost helper in releasing guilt. This flower essence helps us to release the need for perfection and teaches us compassion for the human imperfections of others.
Rose quartz, which helps us to love ourselves, and pink calcite, which helps us to extend this self-love to others, also help to release us from the loveless trap of guilt.
The more grounded we are in the present the more difficult it is to immerse oneself any past negativity. Clematis is the Bach Flower Remedy which helps us to live in the here-and-now, and the crystal, Carnelian, also helps us to center in the present.
At the beginning of this article I described guilt as a state of inaction. When we want to get moving, whether it's to make those amends necessary and possible, or to release ourselves from the stagnation which is a big part of guilt, the FES flower essence Cayenne, and rutilated quartz can help us to shift gears.
In dealing with guilt or with any emotion which does not allow us to acknowledge ourselves as full human beings
clear quartz, which we call the mirror of the soul, helps us to reclaim our full humanity. The FES flower essence
Sagebrush helps us to see and release all that which is not a part of our essential being.