Guilt is the voice of your conscience telling you that you’ve “done wrong.” While it’s important to listen to it, you would be wise to consider whether its assessments are accurate. Too often, when people see others suffering, they feel sad, register it as feeling “bad”, which they interpret as being guilty. In an instant, feeling sympathy (a caring reaction) is interpreted as feeling guilty (a cause for self-criticism).
These distinctions are tricky, especially because they happen unconsciously. It takes some reflection to even realize what’s going on. When you see someone in distress and feel guilty, consider the following:
Are you simply feeling upset that the person is hurting, or wishing that you could have prevented it? Imagine this: A friend is distraught, going through a breakup. You feel “bad” -- or sad -- for her. This is sympathy. You are not guilty of doing anything wrong. In addition, your wish that she feel better and your desire to help her reflect compassion. Still, the sense of powerlessness to fully ease her pain and make her feel happy again can be difficult to experience.
Are you guilty of doing something wrong? Being guilty means you committed some kind of “crime.” It is not enough to have done something that contributed to someone’s pain. For example, Sarah’s sister was upset when Sarah finally stood up to her sister’s bossiness and refused to cancel a date just so that they could hang out together. Sarah was not guilty of doing something wrong, even though her actions partly led to her sister being distressed.
Stated more directly, many people miss the very important distinction between responsibility and guilt. It’s a difference that can be particularly difficult to make because they so very much don’t want to hurt others, especially those whom they love. Having some responsibility for events that lead to a loved one’s distress can be upsetting, but it is not the same as being guilty of doing something wrong.
When I think about this topic, I am always reminded of an event that happened decades ago. It was dusk when I was driving home from work within the speed limit on a local street. A large black dog dashed across the street, and I hit it. The dog died, and I felt incredibly guilty. It took some time for me to sort out that while I was responsible for killing the dog, I could not have known it would happen or avoid it. Yes, I was responsible (something that still weighs heavy on my heart), but I was not guilty.
If you confuse sympathy or responsibility with guilt, you are likely carrying unnecessary guilt. By learning to let go of this unnecessary guilt, you can free yourself from that extra weight. Then you can focus on feeling empathy and compassion for the other person’s pain -- and maybe even take action to help ease their struggles.