Why Do We Feel Unnecessary Guilt?

In a recent post about trying to live without unnecessary guilt, I explained how my attitude about even small decisions can make me feel guilty and inadequate no matter what choice I actually make – that’s if I can actually bring myself to make a decision, which sometimes I really struggle to do. Around New Year’s 2012, I made the first realisation that not everything I felt was an obligation necessarily was, and I could allow myself to reinvestigate what my mom and I called ‘the oughtness’ and make an intelligent decision about what really mattered and what didn’t. Following on from that, I’ve recently spent some time thinking about why some trivial decisions can have such a crushing hold on us.

Before I go any further, I should make a stand for moral living and say that sloughing off the ‘oughtness’ was never about rejecting all morality; it was about attaining clarity about what the genuinely moral matters were. Even at my most anxious, I’ve always felt a clear difference between making a moral decision (even one requiring courage) and the kind of decision that feels like an inescapable dilemma, slowly crushing and suffocating me, inflicting me with guilt in anticipation and giving no release even after the decision is made. Moral decisions, though arguably they sometimes require great courage, usually have some guidance by conscience or external rules (for me, Biblical rules): don’t lie, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, speak to edify, speak the truth. In other words, these moral decisions have in-built systems which prevent them from having the crushing ambiguity of the horrible dilemmas of oughtness; there are ways out and ways forward. In this way, I think making intelligent moral decisions is liberating.

So, in all that I say from now on, I’m not talking about clearly right/wrong issues. I’m talking about the intricacies of decisions where we have no obvious guidance, about matters which even our wisest friends think are trivial, where every option threatens regret, and in which we sense that somehow our decision-making faculties have malfunctioned. This is the kind of decision which crushes us under the tyranny of the ‘oughtness’.

Why do we feel oughtness?

The question I’ve been asking myself lately is what the ‘oughtness’ is really about, anyway: what makes a rational person weirdly unable to negotiate simple decisions, feeling guilty about the outcome even before having decided anything?

As with many of the irrational or unhelpful patterns of thought which accompany anxiety and depression, simply dismissing the whole problem isn’t the answer. If it were easy to dismiss irrational thoughts simply by saying, ‘That’s silly’, we could all sort ourselves out immediately. I think the real question to ask is, ‘Why do irrational thoughts sometimes look and feel so much like rational ones?’

Let’s start with an example, one of the scenarios I posed in my other post on guilt: the case deciding whether to go to a friend’s birthday party when you’re tired and feeling ill. Here’s the mental dialogue I described before:

Should I go to my friend’s birthday party, even though I was tired? It would make me a bad friend not to go. But if I did go out, feeling so under the weather, I might end up getting sick and it would be my own fault.

This is a single, quite simple decision (with a yes/no kind of answer), but many times in my life I’ve definitely been crushed into depression and inaction under the weight of such decisions as this.

If we dig one level deep, we see examples of several classic depressive ways of thinking, including catastrophising (imagining the worst), mind reading (assuming what others – your friend – will think), predicting the future, and black and white thinking (seeing limited possibilities for outcomes). Something like the Moodjuice Depression Self-Help Guide can equip us to unpick these irrational aspects of the mental dialogue.

However, there’s a deeper level of reasoning where I think the real problem lies. This is the level at which, beneath the surface of a demonstrably irrational dialogue, there are real values, real obligations, which are what endow the whole situation with the effect of moral importance. Beneath this dialogue about whether to go to a party or not lies the desire to honour the important value of friendship. Equally present, probably, is the (sensible) value of caring for one’s own health. There’s nothing irrational about these values; they are basic values that most people would hold, which should and do flow out into healthy, real obligations.

The problem with the guilt-inducing ‘should I go?’ decision is that it makes a momentary action – going to the party – parasitic upon the real value of friendship. The irrationality is in the false equivalency our minds can produce between important values and small actions:

going to the party = Friendship

This false equivalency is the source of the horrible dilemma. If we start by assuming this false equivalency, in fact the surface-level mental dialogue is logically valid: If I don’t go to the party, I am not a good friend. If friendship is equated with going to the party, then not going to the party is, logically speaking, the negation of friendship. I think the reason that so many irrational dilemmas feel so important, and so legitimate on the surface, is that the irrationality is actually below the surface in this underlying assumption that a single action is equivalent to a major value.

But this equation doesn’t represent how we relate to our most important values, the desirable abstract principles that guide our lives. In normal life, major values like friendship, love, hard work or financial responsibility don’t normally rest on a small, ambiguous, but make-or-break decision. Friendship is built over time through repeated gestures of interest and care. It may be eroded over time, too, with repeated gestures of unkindness or rejection. But in the small things, there’s often not one single step which, alone, is solely responsible for a friendship or its disintegration. Even the ‘decisive moments’ often come as the culmination of a repeated pattern.

The false equivalency of ‘going to the party = Friendship’ is false precisely because it ignores this one-to-many relationship of values to actions. Fortunately for us, imperfect, busy and tired as we are, many of our actions are not make-or-break. If, however, we assume that one of our core values is crucially at stake in every small decision, it’s no wonder we feel anxious and indecisive.

How to honour the real values

As I’ve thought through many of my most mundane but guilt-laden decisions, I’ve realised that usually they’re due to this false equivalency. If I see through it, I see the real value beneath the surface. This opens a new vista: what I really face is the creative challenge of practically honouring what’s valuable.

If I’m stuck in the store, trying to evaluate whether to buy new shoes, the underlying value is financial responsibility – possibly also comfort and health of my feet! If I’m debating between spending a cosy evening with my husband or suggesting a social activity, the underlying values are marriage and friendship. If I can’t decide whether to read a book or do the dishes, the underlying values are intellectual stimulation and cleanliness.

Recognising the value underlying a mental dialogue imparts enormous clarity and freedom in decision-making, because usually there are many options for honouring our values. If I’m trying to honour my friendship with someone, in fact there are many creative ways of doing so even without attending the birthday party with a sore throat: send a text and apologise for not being able to come, but offer to treat them to a fancy coffee later in the week to catch up; buy a little gift and write a note; even just call them later on to see how they’re doing. Maybe, in this situation, having realised that it’s friendship that’s the central value, I might even decide to bundle up my sore throat and head out to the party anyway. But that decision will have been intelligently and freely made, seeking to honour what’s important, instead of a desperate attempt to evade the tyranny of guilt.

The trick of escaping unnecessary guilt, for me, hasn’t been to try to dismiss my irrational reasoning, but to pinpoint the precise moment of illogic (deep in unspoken assumptions) when the ridiculous finally touches the important. There are usually good values latent in my most anxious dilemmas; it’s those values, not the layers of mental dialogue that accumulate on top of them, that deserve attention.

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