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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jon

How To Work Through Guilt

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.

– Leonardo Da Vinci

Recently, I have been working with a couple over the suicide of their adult child.

It happened 2 months ago. He was 26. There was no note. There was no known reason. No foreshadowing. The parents are utterly destroyed. Our counseling sessions together consist of extremes: laughter and joy at them remembering, weeping and grief at knowing there will be no more memories made.

They blame themselves unnecessarily for things beyond their control.

I want you to think deeply about your life. Specifically, about the presence of guilt in your life. I explain guilt as arising from transgressions against one’s self [1]. This powerful kind of guilt is born from deep regret. A regret of a life not fully lived, of unrealized possibilities within one’s self. This is called, existential guilt – guilt about what we have or have not done with our existence.

Guilt can be defined as a sense of unused life.

Excuses melt under the searing heat of existential guilt. Comfortable clichés and polite platitudes such as, “I didn’t mean it,” or, “I’ll get to it later,” or, “It was an accident,” are effortlessly destroyed by existential guilt.

Guilt produces shame, and if we do not accept responsibility for ourselves we will forever be held as prisoners; slaves on a plantation of our own making.

Guilt is closely related to responsibility and possibility. People may feel guilty because they feel a sense of 'being responsible for' something. They feel they are the cause. These people feel they are the author of some unspeakable evil or some great calamity. Guilt responsibility flows from a real sense of wrongdoing - most often against another person. When we feel guilty it may be due to the unlived life inside of us.

Guilt is also related to possibility in that when your conscience prods you in a certain direction, you listen. When we do not listen to our conscience, nothing will change. When we don't listen to our conscience we don't have the possibility of anything getting better.

We are guilty to the extent that we have failed to act upon the possibility we know we ought to have acted upon. When we deny possibilities to better our lives and the lives of those around us by failing to do right, the result is guilt.

And guilt when full-grown leads to despair.

If guilt can be responsible for our destruction, responsibility can lead us to redemption. God asks each of us to make of ourselves what we ought. If guilt comes from the violation of another or from a violation of our own conscience, then the best way of dealing with existential guilt is through atonement. Guilt causes us to look backward, but we must live life forward. In this way we can only atone for the past by altering the future.[2]

How do we alter our future? How can we be rid of the guilt in our lives? We make the decision to change. We accept the responsibility of change. The decision must be ours alone. Delegating the decision to someone else strips the choice of its power to heal. Accepting responsibility can introduce us to things about ourselves we would rather not know.

Choose to grow anyway. Forge the opinion of yourself you want from the things in your life you don’t.

When we release ourselves of guilt we become free. Not free in the sense that we are free to do what we want, but free in the sense that we are free to do as we ought. Not free from the various circumstances of our life, but free to interact with the circumstances that confront us. We are free to shape our own character and we are responsible for what we shape ourselves into.[3]

To help free my clients from existential guilt I will ask them a troubling question:

Imagine that we have not seen each other for three years.

Suddenly, we run into one another at a coffee shop and I ask, ‘What new regrets have you accumulated?’

What would you say?

How would you answer me?

Working through the past guilt that plagues your thoughts will help you fashion a regret-free future.


[1] Tillich, P., 1952. The Courage To Be. Yale University Press. New Haven, CT. [2] Yalom, I.D., 1980. Existential Psychotherapy. Basic Books. New York, NY. [3] Frankl, V.E., 1969. The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy. Penguin Books. New York, NY.

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