The Psychology of Guilt | A Barometer for Transgression

We are currently living in a world where we are becoming more open to discussing mental health issues. From depression, to anger, to suicidal tendencies–we are beginning to acknowledge that people can become mentally unbalanced.

With the Apostolic Age came a huge shift in the way that we think and are socialised to think. Even our thoughts came under surveillance. In contrast to Mosaic Law, Jesus does not say ‘You shall not be angry,’ or ‘You shall not have sexual desires.’ Rather, the Gospels–which were written by his Apostles–preach that those who are angry are guilty, and those who lust after someone else’s wife have committed adultery.

It is striking that nowhere in the Old Testament do we find a literary genre that is so centred on a person as the gospels are.

The New Testament by Gerd Theissen

Why did Jesus preach this message? Are we to be judged by our deeds and our actions? Or are we judged by the thoughts we possess but never act upon? Imagine if someone could read your thoughts. How scary would that be?

There is a whole mechanism that comes into play between the moment we think of doing something and the moment we actually do something. I may want to start a business, talk about it, dream about it, discuss it with my friends and so on…

But many people never actually do it.

It’s the same with writing that bestseller you always dreamed of writing.

To do what you think about, your instinct and impulse must be very strong. When people actually do what they say they want to do, we call such individuals courageous. It’s a rare quality. They may fail and end up being a cautionary tale. In those situations, they usually realise that they have acted thoughtlessly and carelessly; and that their actions have backfired.

What is the result of this, then? Guilt.

Guilt is the byproduct of not thinking something through as thoroughly as you should have. These feelings, in small doses, are healthy. They make us realise that we’ve made lousy decisions. We make a mental note and we remember not to do the same thing next time around.

And if we’ve learnt our lesson, we probably won’t repeat the mistake.

On the other hand, guilt becomes insidious when we transgressed what we have internalised to be a moral value. When I do something–or even possess the desire to do something that I believe to be morally wrong–then feelings of guilt take root. The intensity of the guilt increases when we believe that our behaviour will cause another person harm.

The general actions that a guilty person can take to soothe their conscience is either to apologise, do someone a favour, seek out punishment or even take significant measures to reform their own life. The last option is the best one, but also the most difficult one.

Feelings of guilt are unavoidable. We have all internalised social norms that force us to choose between competing values and traditions.

When we pick one at the expense of another, we feel ‘bad’. The concept of original sin forces us to accept that we are born guilty. It is a heavy-handed socialisation process. The measures that is one is willing to take to atone for such a sin may well be extreme.

Is humanity as a whole sinful and undeserving?

In the New Age philosophy, people say things like, “Your thoughts become your reality.” And so on… But does that really happen? Many thoughts–or even fantasies we harbour–remain that. We daydream about it, we maybe even entertain a few naughty thoughts now and then; but we do not have the mechanism in our mind that allows us to take action.

So what is stopping us from taking action?

There is a bridge that needs to be crossed.

“I wanted to do it. I thought I would do it. I even thought I could do it. But then, I decided against it.”

Guilt, in small doses, is a natural response to having done something that resulted in a mishap or a mistake. When it becomes entrenched, however, it can trap us in a life pattern that we cannot come out of without external help.

When we think about doing something and then never end up doing it… Let’s just say that we never wanted to do it in the first place.

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