Several years ago Letitia Baldrige, author of numerous etiquette books, made a mistake that caused her great embarrassment and guilt. A friend who worked with the United Nations prepared a dinner in honor of Baldrige and her husband, Robert, to which she had also invited two ambassadors.
“I would have been honored to attend,” recalled Baldrige, “but I wrote the engagement on the wrong night in my appointment book.” The night of the dinner she and her husband went out on the town. Baldrige was oblivious to the missed appointment until the next morning when she heard the woman’s hurt voice on the telephone. “At that instant I wanted to die,” she said.
Baldrige apologized on the phone, went to the woman’s office to repent in person, and wrote a formal four-page letter of remorse that she sent to the woman along with two dozen roses. Six months later she sent more flowers to commemorate the half-year anniversary of her blunder.
At one time or another everyone makes a mistake, commits an error of judgement, or says or does something wrong. The result produces feelings of guilt. And that’s OK, because guilt is good when it’s used the way God intended. But when it’s misused, it reduces self-confidence, batters self-esteem, and erodes the quality of life. It can completely destroy a relationship. Here are six ways to make guilt work for you.
1Recognize guilt as a warning
Whenever guilt prompts you to take a second look and alter your behavior, it works as an ally, not an enemy. Consider the example of singer and songwriter Neil Diamond. In 1972, when he was at the height of his career, he abruptly took four years off. Behind that decision lay an uneasy conscience. He said, “I had gone through one marriage and two kids and was into my second marriage when I told myself I’d better step back and take a look at what I was doing and where I was going. I didn’t want this marriage to end in divorce.”
He later said that the 48 months he took off from his career were “probably the most important period of my life. I took four years to get to know my children, my wife, and myself.”
By responding to the warning light of guilt, Diamond not only avoided repeating his earlier mistakes but emerged from those four years a more relaxed, happier person.
Guilt feelings work for you when they motivate you to correct behavior that’s inappropriate, offensive, hurtful, and destructive. In so doing, they enable you to learn and grow. “People who do wrong things to themselves or to others should feel guilty for what they have done,” declares rabbi and author Harold Kushner. “If their guilt moves them to do good, to balance the bad, if it makes them more careful, more caring, it will have been constructive guilt.”
2take time to analyze your guilt
Guilt feelings can often be corrected, reduced, and even eliminated when they’re carefully analyzed. This was an effective strategy for Susan, a West Coast advertising agency executive. As a working mother she felt guilty whenever her eight-year-old daughter became sick. “I would blame myself for working and feel very guilty that I wasn’t home for her or that I wasn’t spending enough time with her,” she says.
However, Susan has learned to analyze her guilt this way: “After the initial wave of guilt I calm down and try to look at it realistically. I ask myself these questions: Do I want to quit my job? The answer is always No. Is there an alternative to my present situation? The answer is also No. So, I go over it thoroughly in my mind and always come to the same conclusion: It’s tough to work full-time while raising a child. But the other options are far less appealing.” By analyzing her guilt, Susan took steps to reduce it, and she developed ways to cope that didn’t adversely affect her life or the life of her daughter.
After analyzing your guilt, respond appropriately and rationally. If you’ve done something or failed to do something for which you feel guilty, take corrective measures. Apologize, ask forgiveness, make amends if possible. Don’t let guilt feelings drive you to extremes as it did one man when his brother died. The surviving brother ordered as a marker for his brother’s grave a life-sized replica of a Mercedes-Benz, complete with windshield wipers and radio antenna. The sculpture cost the surviving brother $120,000.
So why did this man feel so guilty? For years he had promised to buy his brother a car, but he never found the time to do so. When his brother died suddenly, the surviving brother was consumed by guilt over his neglect. His response, however, was extreme. A healthier and more rational response would have been a donation to a charity to honor his brother’s life combined with a personal resolve to act upon promises made in the future.
4Invite God to remove guilt
Psalm 51 is one of the great biblical passages revealing human repentance and God’s forgiveness. It was written by King David after he recognized the sinfulness of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. David’s prayer can be a model for all of us: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love,” he wrote. “Cleanse me . . . and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:1, 7).
This psalm is an admission that there are some things we cannot do for ourselves—one of which is to make ourselves feel whole, healthy, and clean again. After we’ve repented of our mistake or sin and confessed it, we all need God’s help to lift the burden of guilt.
5Learn from the experience
There’s no point in repeating the same mistakes. Look back at what went wrong. Resolve to not let it happen again. Letitia Baldrige certainly learned from her mistake. Thereafter she double-checked the date of every appointment when she made it. And she no longer jotted notes by the telephone with intentions of recording them in her date book later.
Once you’ve taken all appropriate steps to make amends and correct the behavior, forgive yourself, forget the offense, and move forward. Remember that you aren’t perfect. Don’t make yourself miserable by expending great amounts of energy in self-blame or self-hatred. Keep in mind this advice from C. S. Lewis: “If God forgives us, we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”
In his book A Guide to Confident Living, minister and author Norman Vincent Peale said, “One of the most important of all skills is that of forgetting. To be happy and successful you must cultivate the ability to say to yourself ‘Forget it!’?”
Don’t let guilt torment your life. Walk away from experiences that are over. Learn your lesson, be wiser, avoid useless post-mortems over mistakes, and move your life forward.
By using these strategies, you can make your guilt feelings improve your quality of life. You’ll learn the difference between the healthy guilt that sounds an alarm when something’s definitely wrong and unhealthy guilt that takes on a life of its own and bears no relation to reality.