An all too common emotion, guilt is not widely thought of as an emotion that stands out from the rest. People deal with it all the time and it becomes overshadowed due to its frequency. Contrary to what most think, guilt is a compound emotion. There are too many factors involved with guilt for one to fully understand the emotion. Guilt can greatly influence one’s life, as it should. Without guilt, there would no reason to not make horrible moral decisions. One could live as they pleased and not feel an ounce of remorse.
Guilt is like an all-seeing watchdog inside an individual’s mind, pointing them towards the right path. Although, this watchdog is not always followed, or listened to. Instead, it barks constantly at it’s master, until they finally listen, or go crazy from the constant noise that tells them they have done wrong. More than just philosophical, guilt’s effects on the brain are scientific, and studied often. Through many years, a broad understanding of guilt has been acquired, and it is complex. Guilt can adversely affect the well-being of an individual’s brain. Commonly, guilt induces self-loathing, and feelings of remorse.
However, it is uncommonly known that guilt can have good effects on the brain, like helping to recognize a bad decision was made, and offering the possibility that one should fix what they have done. Guilt starts early in life, and at first it seems rather innocent when looked back upon. In her article, “The Definitive Guide to Guilt”, Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne says, “Children develop a strong sense of guilt … as the polar opposite of playfulness. They are afraid to express themselves with their toys because they fear that if they showed their true emotions, they would commit an unacceptable act. (Par. 3).
Establishing itself early, guilt goes onto become an implanted emotion always in the back of one’s mind, continuously swaying every decision a person makes. This early sense of guilt also explains why the feelings of guilt can be so severe and crippling, as they have developed over the course of an individual’s entire life. In addition, many people are religiously affiliated and religion generally fosters guilt, as no one can be god-like, but they consistently try. Christianity, the religion with the most followers, is a culprit of this sense of not being good enough.
In the article, “The Power of Guilt”, Dr. Coates explains that, “Simply put, Christians have made their customs and traditions, along with the ordinances of the law of Moses, a work of righteousness to be performed in order to obtain eternal life or salvation. When an individual does not perform or measure up to these rules, then one experiences guilt. ” (Par. 11). In most religions, the followers are made to feel guilty through the extensive rules that they could never live up to. It’s how religions work. With over 34 of the world identifying with a religion, guilt is major part of many people’s lives.
Their lives revolve around the religion, and in turn, guilt. These two sources of guilt coupled together create a multiplied sense of guilt that tangles a person up, and strangles them in submission. While guilt is a negative emotion related to wrongdoing, there is a similar emotion that yields the same results and feelings: shame. Although closely related, shame and guilt do have some key differences. It is hard to pinpoint in what situations that one may feel guilt rather than shame as people react to the situations differently than others.
While difficult, there has been some conclusions as to what emotion is generally provoked by which events. June Tangney said in her article “Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior” that, “Some researchers claim that shame is evoked by a broader range of situations including both moral and nonmoral failures and transgressions, whereas guilt is more specifically linked to transgressions in the moral realm. ” (Par. 16). Tangney explains that guilt is simply a more specific form of shame, and which feeling one experiences is all based on their perception of the situation and it’s severity.
Another difference between the two is how the feeling is exposed. For example, if one does wrong in front of others, the emotion is different as opposed to if they had done wrong and no one else knows about it. As Phil Barker writes in the article “Guilt and Shame” he describes both: Because of the differences between shame and guilt (who I am Vs. what I did), people respond to each emotion differently. Guilt, because it emphasizes what someone did wrong, tends to elicit more constructive responses… Shame, on the other hand, emphasizes what is wrong with ourselves.
It has a much more inward focus, and as such, leads shameful parties to feel poorly about themselves Essentially, shame is an emotion that results from the potential disapproval from others, and guilt stems from one’s own self-condemnation. (Par. 3-4) With this explanation, it can be seen that guilt and shame can be largely different, but are closely related. When one would feel one or the other solely relies on their morals and their response. The outcome of their response will greatly influence the way they feel about themselves, as well.
When the thought of guilt arises, not many people think of the good that it can bring. Part of this is due to the overwhelming negativity the emotion, and the brain’s tendency to remember negative events to help with survival. However, without a positive side, the emotion would be pointless to the human brain, and likely wouldn’t exist. Guilt’s positive function is explained well by James C. Dobson in his article “Guilt-The Painful Emotion” where he writes, “Personal disapproval for wrong behavior is absolutely necessary if change for the better is to occur. (Par. 2).
Here Dobson is explaining that our guilt keeps us in check, and often times it is all that keeps us in check. Without this, there would be no incentive or warning not to do wrong. A good example of this good in action occurs in Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner. After Amir witnesses Hassan’s rape, he becomes distant from his friend, and eventually they are separated after the war begins. As Amir’s life goes on, his guilt continues to haunt him. He feels as if everything bad that happens to him is because of what he did all those years ago.
Eventually, this guilt is what pushes him to come back to Afghanistan when Rahim Khan calls. In a chilling introduction, Amir summarizes his guilt to the reader when he says: I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.
Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years. (Hosseini 1) Later in the book, the reader learns about the event Amir is referencing. Before learning of Hassan’s rape, Amir does describe many of the side-effects he has due to the guilt. These include sleeplessness, and constant self-condemnation. Even with all the guilt and negativity, Amir returns to Kabul, and decides to rescue Hassan’s son, in order to make up for past mistakes. Guilt can provoke some unstable emotions and actions, causing one to be irrational.
It isn’t rare for this to happen, but the severity can be varied. In William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Macbeth shows some incredibly irrational behavior when he “sees” Banquo’s ghost at the banquet. The reader sees this irrationality when MacBeth says to the ghost, “Avaunt, and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee. Thy bones are marrowless; thy blood is cold; Thou hast no speculation in those eyes which thou dost glare with. ” (Act 3, Scene 4). MacBeth’s extreme guilt over his order to kill his friend is shown blatantly, in front of a whole room of people.
Obviously, there is no one there and MacBeth is merely imagining the figure. While the observation of a ghost is irrational, as is the pursuit of a conversation with it while a room full of your friends watch. This guilt and insane actions MacBeth takes are generally uncharacteristic of those who are guilty. Those who feel guilty, as Dr. Art Markman explains in his article “What does guilt do? “, try to “make up to the specific [person theyl hurt. A second possibility is that a guilty person will try to do something for other people to help them feel better. ” (Par. 3).
This makes MacBeth’s behavior seem even more weird. He doesn’t show the typical want to fix the situation, but rather to cover it up. It makes sense that he would do this, as his guilt is not all that simple. If he were to try to fix it, he would likely be killed and that wouldn’t solve much for me. MacBeth is also notoriously greedy, and his lack of attempts to fix the situation are likely due to this greed and his want to keep everything he has paid dearly for. With all the philosophical study regarding guilt, there is bound to be some medical evidence to what this emotion can do, and there is.
The brain is complex and the effects that guilt has on it are complex as well. Research has found that often, guilt is not the only thing people feel. As Dr. Coates wrote in his e-book Wanterfall, “Guilt does not always travel alone. It can be one of the symptoms of various mental illnesses, especially depressive disorders and schizophrenia. ” (Par. 26). Here, Coates is saying that various research has determined a relationship between guilt and depression, as well as schizophrenia. This relationship has been used to describe why many people who have had depression tend to relapse back into it.
Melissa Healy, a writer for the LA Times, wrote in her article “That guilt you feel? There’s a place (in your brain) for that” that, “for the depressed, even in remission, the cerebral mechanisms of guilt and self-blame continue to hum and whir, untouched by antidepressants or years of psychotherapy. For some, that makes relapse an ever-present prospect. ” (Par. 3). This means that the brain continues to feel guilty, even while the individual may not. A striking conclusion, but helpful nonetheless.
This is helpful because recognizing depression early is the only way to receive help, and with this doctors can better differ between sadness and depression. Often time guilt is characterized as the most powerful human emotion, also while being one of the most common compound emotions. Guilt has many aspects, and it is hard to understand its power, but as the days go on, more is understood. Guilt can be a hard thing to deal with, and all the effects of it can be taxing. While the initial reaction is that guilt is bad, one should see past their misconceptions and use their guilt to better themselves, along with their situation.