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- It serves the purpose of human survival. The pain guides us away from behavior which threatens that survival; i.e., it threatens the fulfillment of our values which ideally are supportive to our life. Rather than being a "negative" experience, it is a constructive advisor which directs us toward social harmony, accountability, and our ideals of self and community. It is allied with our conscience -- and our ethics and morality, which are the organization of the standards of the personal conscience.
- It encourages us to study our motivations and values.
- It prods us to investigate our religious standards. It reminds us that humans are not gods, that we are never perfect; this reminder is the basis of a realistic humility, a knowledge of our human boundaries -- and the sensible strategic decision to rely on a source of power and guidance that is greater than our own.
- It allows us to avoid the greater guilt. That greater guilt is the denial that we have committed an infraction. Many times, parents will "forgive and forget" when a child breaks a rule and then confesses to the wrong-doing; the more severe punishment awaits the child who is caught and then tells lies to deny the act.
Why does guilt hurt? The pain is the tension which is caused by the remnant of energy which has not been expressed; we made less of an effort -- exerted less energy -- than we ideally could have done, and the difference between our action and our capability is equivalent to the distress that we feel. Similar to any other type of restrained energy, this energy causes discomfort until it is released -- perhaps by "making amends" or by apologizing.
- Don't make yourself suffer from guilt. Guilt is feedback; the information is simply to be acted on -- perhaps changing our behavior and making amends. Because guilt is nothing but a psychological mechanism, there is neither logic nor "virtue" in dwelling on the pain or intensifying it. This is true also in religious systems; to dwell on our guilt is a denial of grace. And in the Eastern-religion concept of "karma," there is the impersonal action of reparation and behavioral change (with no value placed on the self-punishment of "feeling guilty"). If we dwell on the feeling of guilt, we are distracted from those duties of reparation and behavioral change; then our natural rebellion against the additional pain makes us rebel against the legitimate guilt itself, and we are thus less likely to perform those duties.
- We can explore our values. Guilt arises when we violate those values. If the values are not realistic, we might be feeling guilt needlessly. Inappropriate guilt can be caused by idealiztic perfectionism (personal or religious), an inflated sense of responsibility (in which we have taken on the burden of another person -- or the whole world -- and inevitably failed), pleasure which seems undeserved (particularly in contrast to other people's misery). If we develop reasonable values, guilt provides an accurate and useful form of internal feedback. Guilt might arise from various categories of values:
- Religious belief. Our conscience notifies us when we have violated the values which we have accepted from our religion or from inner promptings that we sense are from our soul or "higher self."
- The psyche. Jung said that the conscience is an innate part of the psyche; its purpose is to sustain psychological balance and wholeness, thus keeping us on track toward inner growth and individuation.
- External rules. Freud believed that the conscience develops in response to society's restrictions; we are externalizing the limitations which have been imposed from outside. Young children are capable of feeling remorse for acts which apparently violate their natural sense of "right and wrong," but one task in parenting is to teach additional behavioral guidelines that have been established by society's (and the parents') expectations.
- Our own standards. We might still be carrying unwarranted feelings of guilt from our childhood when our parents used it as a way to control us and punish us (i.e., hurt us); as adults, we can question the standards against which we were judged and decide whether we want to use those same standards (which may or may not be valid for us). In the individuation process, we develop a personal conscience, and we can do this only by challenging the values that have been imposed by other people. When this conscience becomes a sincere expression of our deliberated values, it does not need to be justified to anyone.