“Guilt upon the conscience, like rust upon iron, both defiles and consumes it.”
— Robert South, English churchman and poet
“I love this song,” he said. “But it always makes me a little sad.”
When my friend climbed into my vehicle, Cats in the Cradle by Harry Chapin was playing on the radio. It’s an oldie about a father who doesn’t realize he’s neglecting his son until it’s too late, and the son is no longer interested in spending time with him. My friend paused, listening as he buckled up. As we pulled away, I reached over to turn down the volume. He held out his hand and shook his head, reaching over and cranking up the tune. As I drove, we both sang along and then laughed at our off-key rendering.
“Why does the song make you sad?” I asked. “The part about the little boy?”
“Reminds me of my dad,” he replied. “Always working – too busy for anything.”
Like the boy in the song, my friend never received much attention from his father, and they grew apart. Despite efforts by his mother to mend fences and help the two to reconnect, it never happened. My buddy resented his father and did his best to avoid contact.
“He felt guilty. And after he was gone, so did I.”
Erma Bombeck, the American humorist and author, called guilt “the gift that keeps on giving.” Guilt can become all-consuming and have a devastating effect on one’s self-esteem. Prolonged guilt can also produce mental, emotional and physical ailments.
We all feel guilty from time to time, but some people seem more prone to guilt than others – in particular, those with poor self-esteem. Already lacking in confidence and self-efficacy – a belief in one’s ability to succeed – the individual with low self-esteem may replay a mistake over and over, further eroding a diminished sense of personal value. This tendency may lead to further issues including anxiety, depression, an excessive need to control others and the inability to forgive or let go of anger.
To make matters worse, all of this serves to feed the guilt and exacerbate the situation. Guilt can produce a never-ending and self-perpetuating cycle.
The only way to resolve guilt is through forgiveness. Likely, you’ll need to break the cycle before you can forgive yourself and that can prove challenging.
If your self-esteem is low, you may believe yourself unworthy of forgiveness. Here are a couple of things to consider. Are you having trouble forgiving yourself be-cause you expect yourself to be perfect? If someone else made the same mistake, what might you say to him or her?
Approaches to dealing with guilt are as numerous as those who suffer from it. You may want to speak to a friend about your concerns. If the guilt is deep-rooted, you may need the help of a therapist to find your way through the maze. Either way, discussing your feelings openly and honestly is an important step toward self-forgiveness. An open airing of your wrongdoing may bring the realization that it was not as terrible as you imagined. You may discover the event was the result of fear and a lack of awareness.
A technique I have found useful is journalling. Putting the words on paper can give you the opportunity to explore your feelings. It may even lead you to discover why forgiveness has been such a challenge. You might also want to consider secondary gain. Is there a benefit to feeling guilty? Does feeling poorly serve a purpose for you?
“Peace visits not the guilty mind,” wrote Nemo Malus Felix, the Roman poet.
Mistakes are tools for learning. When you think about the “big” mistake – the cause of your guilt – ask yourself what you’ve learned from it. Imagine your life without guilt. Imagine how you’d feel if you could let go, accept and forgive. It is possible.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem columnist.