The Guilty Mind

By Catherine Hutchens

‘Guilt’ has two fundamental meanings: 1) a factual state of culpability; and 2) a feeling of remorse. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year reading criminal law cases. In doing so, I’ve searched for evidence that gives rise to guilt in the first meaning of the word.  Time consuming though it may be, it’s not all consuming like another kind of guilt, within the second meaning of the word, that I’ve experienced.

That’s the guilt that knocks on the door of my brain during periods of mental ‘unwellness.’ We all experience periods of mental ‘unwellness’, accompanied or unaccompanied by mental illness, where functioning is severely impacted by feelings of anxiety, distress, or detachment from the self. If you’re like me, you start to feel bad for yourself, you wonder how long it’s going to last and you swear that you wouldn’t want anyone else to feel this way. You become consumed by your ‘unwellness’ and are unable to think about anyone but yourself and anything but the terrible feelings that you’re experiencing.

That’s until I walk past a person who is living on the streets, or the person in front of me at the grocery store can’t afford all of the items in their basket, or I speak with someone who’s been in an abusive relationship, or I see someone who is living with a chronic physical illness. Then, the remorse kicks in. Painful regret for feeling unwell. Sometimes, the regret leads to anger. I get mad with myself for being an ungrateful waste of space. What do I have to feel unwell about? I’ve never experienced financial difficulties, I have supportive relationships, and I’m ‘able-bodied.’ As an aside, now I’m feeling guilty about feeling guilty that I’m able-bodied because inherent in that guilt is an ableist assumption that my life is somehow better because of my ‘able-bodiedness.’ 

How can I be so ungrateful as to allow myself to feel unwell when I have such a great life? My ‘unwellness’ seems unjustified. I shouldn’t feel like this. There’s no reason for it. There are people out there with real problems. Real problems that give rise to real feelings of distress, anxiety and despair. I don’t have real problems. Therefore, my feelings can’t be real either. That chain of thinking will do nothing but make you feel worse.  I don’t want to feel worse and I don’t want you to feel worse. So, how do we address this feeling of guilt?

I’m not going to say “don’t feel guilty.” There are two reasons for that: 1) that feeling of guilt is real and it’s valid; and 2) the guilt is a sign that you’re empathic. Your guilt is a sign that you can recognize what it’s like to be in the shoes of another person.  It means that you can process and feel the pain of another person. You hurt because someone else hurts. So, first of all, give yourself a pat on the back for feeling guilty. Despite being consumed by feelings of distress or despair you are still thinking about others. Your feeling of remorse is so deep that it makes you close your eyes and wince because you care about others. 

Then, when you’re well again, act upon that guilt. Harness your ability to feel what another person feels. You can do this by listening to understand instead of listening to respond. Try to avoid phrases such as “I completely understand” or “when X happened to me, I felt Y.”  Make it your goal to understand how certain experiences or circumstances made another person feel, not how they would have made you feel. Practically, it can be as simple as conveying your interest in understanding by nodding affirmatively or asking “would you like to tell me more about that?” Try to avoid leading questions or phrases such as “you must have felt X.” Instead, ask “how did you feel when that happened?” Don’t tell people how strong they are, help people discover their strengths by replacing with “that was really brave” with “wow, in the midst of everything that has happened and how you were feeling, how did you do that?” Be curious about it. “How did you do that?” The internal process that occurs when you realize, for yourself, how you managed to accomplish something difficult in the midst of ‘unwellness’ is incredibly empowering. Remember, empowerment doesn’t occur by transferring power from one person to another. Empowerment occurs from within.  All of this to say that you don’t have to be a trained clinician to help someone. Even your attempt to understand can do wonders to validate another person’s feelings. 

Now that I’ve suggested that you not ignore your guilt, I’m also going to suggest that you try not to let yourself become consumed by the guilt. Notice it. Let yourself sit in it for an hour, an afternoon, or a day. Then remember that you have not brought the ‘unwellness’ upon yourself. It’s been levied upon you by some combination of your environment and the reaction of your brain. Your feelings are real. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You feel unwell and you don’t need to justify that. There is no reason for ‘unwellness’ that is more or less valid than the next. There are just different reasons.

I know it’s not as easy as saying “I’m not going to feel guilty anymore.” The undertones of guilt are going to be pervasive. They’ll trickle into your brain like water from a leak dropping into a collection bucket. The goal is to make sure the thoughts of guilt are more like a slow leak where a drop falls into the bucket only every so often. How do you do that? Setting aside a dedicated amount of time, like I’ve suggested above, can be helpful. Take your little collection bucket and empty it out. You can also speak with a trusted listener who will help you understand that it’s alright to have little drops of guilt in your bucket and that your realization that others might be feeling unwell for different reasons doesn’t mean that you’re not feeling well, for your own reasons, right now.

For those of you feeling guilty about your ‘unwellness’, I hope that you neither ignore it nor are overtaken by it. When you notice the guilt and then take control over it, you’re empowering yourself to connect with others and with yourself.  Now that these thoughts are in the universe and not just my brain, I no longer feel guilty about the studying I’ve put off to write this. 


About the Author:

Catherine Hutchens, BSW (Memorial), is a proud Newfoundlander who calls St. John’s home. She is currently a second year law student at the University of New Brunswick. A former frequenter of the rink and the soccer field, she loves all sports and keeps her TV tuned almost exclusively to TSN. She also enjoys going to the gym, reading early-to-mid 20th century fiction, and writing.