Our Personal Police: What Guilt Is Here To Teach Us
The thing about nerve-endings is that we are lucky to have them. We curse when we stub our toes and lose productive days to migraines. But as painful as, well, pain is, it’s actually there to help us. We know not to reach into the oven without mitts on because otherwise it hurts. This saves us from inflicting damage to our skin. The natural reflexes we have based on avoiding pain are there to help keep our body safe and in one piece. But I’m not here to give a biology lesson. What I want to do is make a comparison: negative sensations exist to help keep our body safe. So what about negative emotions? Aren’t they the same?
For example, you borrow your sister’s iPod and get a little over enthusiastic while dancing to ABBA. It flies across the room and the screen cracks, right down the middle. You then feel guilty—never a nice feeling. But why should that feeling exist? Well, it’s just the same as a stubbed toe. The reason stubbing your toe hurts so much is because toes don’t like to be banged against walls. They hurt because that’s their way of telling you to look where you are walking.
Guilt is there for the same reason. It’s our mind’s way of telling us to be more careful in future. I mean, we learn that you have to respect others, but what enforces this? The police have more important things to worry about than cracked iPods. Guilt, along with other such feelings, is our own personal law enforcement.
This is a way of turning things around. Rather than serving as a punishment, the negative emotion is there to teach us to do things differently in the future. When we feel sad after having an argument with a friend, this is our mind’s way of telling us to work out our differences in a more amicable way. When we feel angry at ourselves for walking into a lecture twenty minutes late (yet again), our mind is telling us to wake up the first, or second, or even third time your alarm goes off. Not the fifth. Not the tenth.
When we stub our toe, how long does the pain last? We hop around, shout inexplicably satisfying swear words, and in some cases drop to the floor and roll around dramatically. And then we get up, and we move on with our life. The pain fades and soon it’s just a memory. So why do we hang on to guilt and sadness and anger for so long? Once it has taught us the lesson, we don’t need it anymore. Your sister isn’t going to feel better about her iPod because you’ve been feeling guilty about it for three months now. Feeling sad about an argument does not have the power to change what happened. Being angry about being late isn’t going to retrospectively make you arrive on time.
These emotions are not there just to point out what you shouldn’t have done, but to show you what you can do to fix the situation that caused them. How do we get rid of the guilt? Have the iPod screen fixed. How do we resolve the argument? Talk it out and apologize. How do we wake up to our alarm? Please if someone knows the answer to this help me out because I haven’t the slightest idea.
My point, though, is that we don’t need to treat negative emotions as an enemy. Obviously we want to avoid them, but that’s the whole point. Just as our body lets go of pain after we learn to not touch hot things, we need to let our minds do the same thing.