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Fear of Guilt
Jun 11, 2007, 6:43p - Life

We have fear. We're scared. That's OK.

What's not OK is that we let that fear control how we feel, on the inside.

We let fear build walls where none exist. In our minds. We board up the options we assume won't budge, without even giving them a push.

We let fear dictate what we will do and what we won't do.

And it's not just any fear.

It's fear of guilt.

It's why I saw a child yesterday, maybe around 5 years-old, tied to his dad with one of those leash backpacks. I was walking Zoe and I couldn't help but wonder, when the boy saw my dog, if he thought that he was a dog. Why would a parent tie their child down, as if he was a dog?

It's fear of guilt.


It's fear of guilt. If something happens to their son, what immediately goes through the parents' heads is what they could have done to stop it. When nothing happens to their son, they imagine what could happen to him, and what would go through their minds after the unmentionable happened. And they imagine how they would feel. And imagine the guilt. What would others think? If only I had done one thing...if only I had kept my son on a leash...

It's fear of guilt. It's not even the unmentionable that gets us, it's how guilty we know we will feel if it happens. It's not a feeling, it's a meta-feeling, a predicted feeling, a feeling about how we would feel. It's that twing in the gut of guilt.

And we're scared, we're mortified by it. It's not right to feel guilty. We've all learned that. It's the bedrock of our culture. It's what we learned in Catholic school, Jewish school, Lutheran school, whatever school. It means you're a bad person.

So we fear it, like we fear nothing else. It's the guilt of choice - knowing that we could have made a choice that contributed to the unmentionable happening. But it's not the fear of making the wrong choice, it's the fear of feeling guilty about making the wrong choice. Knowing that we are responsible - we can't take it. We're taught not to take it. We're taught to rest it on the shoulders of God, that no mere mortal can support that heft of guilt.

But God isn't enough. So we choose safety, but not true safety, the illusion of safety, so that if the unmentionable does happen, we know that there was nothing else we could have done. Our conscience has its alibi. As long as we know that, less guilt. It's this illusion that is our confidence. We did the best that we could, what anyone else in our situation would have done. It's a terrible thing, but it's not our fault.

Of course, we end up feeling guilty anyway, because we can never really do all that we could have done.

We are notoriously good at predicting a future. We can imagine every word, every step, every motion we will make, ever counter to their counter. Unfortunately, we're notoriously bad at predicting which of the infinitude of futures will be the one we experience.

So we're paralyzed. I'm paralyzed. I want to do the things I'm supposed to do. But I don't. I don't want to do them. So I get anxious.

Our culture of caution is but one symptom of this condition. But I think this is why we're cautious, why we're anxious, why we're unsettled.

Why do I feel anxious? I've recently realized that my anxiety was not due to my job, but that I put my anxiety into my job. I believed that if I changed my job, then I wouldn't feel anxious. But it wasn't true. Instead, I've found new things to feel anxious about. I'm anxious about my weekly acting class. I'm anxious about my practice sessions with my acting partner. It could be performance anxiety, but is it? I'm anxious when I sit at home, not knowing what I should do with my day. Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing what I should be doing? Maybe I should be doing something else? Maybe I should be thinking about something else? How do I know?

I don't feel guilty. But I'm worried I will. I fear it, knowing that someday, in the future, I may regret not doing something that I should have done on the eve of my 26th birthday. I have this time, am I making the best of it?

That's my fear of guilt.

Some blame our litigious society. "People are scared that they'll get sued," so they restrict their behavior. We make rules for ourselves, perimeters that enclose the safe-world for our minds. Dogs can't be off-leash (who knows, they might bite!). We get insurance if a kid trips on our front lawn. We wash our hands.

It's why my friends are addicted to Purell, that funky hand-sanitizer that evaporates and comes in such a cute little bottle. What if they get sick? If they had washed their hands, been a little bit more clean, could that have stopped it? You never know, but you can never be too careful, can you?

Can you?

But it's not the lawsuits or the fear of lawsuits. It's the fear of the guilt of knowing that there might have been something that would have prevented the lawsuit. It isn't the lawsuit.

It isn't the fear of rejection that keeps us from trying. It's the fear of the guilt that we know we will feel if we get rejected.

That is what we're living. It's the safe society, it's the we-know-better-so-listen-to-us society of experts, it's the insure-everything-and-on-top-of-that-insure-my-insurance society, it's the follow-the-directions society. But how do they know how you should live?

We all have our fears, but it's the fear of guilt that dictates how we feel from moment to moment, breath to breath. It's that storm in the stomach, that moment of freezing up when you're walking alone and you pass someone on the sidewalk, coming towards you, avoiding eye contact. Sure, we fear possibility of pain, of suffering. But what we know will stay with us, is the guilt. Was it my fault? Did I deserve that? Did I do something to make that happen? Could I have done something differently? What happens if it happens again?

I'm not saying we shouldn't do some things, take some precautions. What I am saying is that we shouldn't let it affect us, affect our mental state, when we don't. It's OK. It's not your fault. If the unmentionable happens to your kid, it's not what you could have done that matters, but what you do now to deal with it. Guilt is not the answer.

Guilt is individualism at its extreme, where we take responsibility for everything that does and does not happen around us. I didn't get into an accident today, therefore I was safe. But it doesn't make any sense.

This is our own personal psychosis. We want to take responsibility, we feel guilty that we should, yet we don't want to, we want to blame someone or something else. This is the game of ping-pong inside our heads. Guilt and blame, guilt and blame.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

We are immobilized by our fear of guilt. We are numbed by it. Our minds are imprisoned by it. It filters what we say, what we do, what we think. But we have to break out of it. We have to re-learn what it means to be real again. What it means to not be superficial. To live a life that is more than just a series of distractions, distractions from our fear of guilt.

Read comments (7) - Comment

MattM - Jun 11, 2007, 11:32p
The fact that parents put their children on leashes may be less about their guilt and more about them poorly estimating their state after the loss of a child. Daniel Gilbert claims that we are quite bad at estimating this sort of thing and has data to back it up. Unfortunately, his book (Stumbling on Happiness) is not in amazon search within the book or google book search and I'm too lazy to find his references in the book by hand. The best quote on could find on the web was this one:

"We are not the field of fragile flowers that a century of therapists have made us out to be," he said. "We are remarkably resilient. . . . It isn't the case that life returns to normal and you get over the death of a child. But what it is, is that it is worth living again and that is something most of us cannot imagine.

neha - Jun 12, 2007, 12:02p
good post. "I've recently realized that my anxiety was not due to my job, but that I put my anxiety into my job." That's a powerful realization.

I've been thinking about control a lot lately. I was reading _Stumbling on Happiness_. I went camping this weekend, and I was so paranoid about being prepared. I tried to account for every circumstance, all changes in weather, all possible activities. We think we have so much control over our lives, and that illusion often paralyzes us. Or distresses us. Causes us to take responsibility for events like we could have predicted their outcome. Something related to your thoughts on fear and guilt.

nikhil - Jun 12, 2007, 12:25p
yeah. that is *exactly* the feeling. it's a form of paralyzing paranoia.

heather - Jun 26, 2007, 3:05p
Good points. I also find that we (or at least I) can be tempted to take more responsibility than is really necessary, leading to more anxiousness. This is certainly true at work, and I imagine it's even more the case as a parent...maybe this is what leads to kids' lives getting massively overscheduled (eg "I must make sure my kid knows how to play piano/ swim/ etc so that he/she has a happy life.") But again, you can't control a child's future any more than you can anyone else's.

So many of the best experiences in life happen because we *weren't* prepared, and so we reacted quickly on gut instinct, rather than analyzing every option first.

harpo - Sep 25, 2007, 12:23p
I hear you Nikhil and I (think) am with you. Fear isn't just one thing however, in my opinion our minds and emotion do a variety of things that we call fear. You identified a lot of different things we blame fear for, but I think I should point out that some kind of fear is a natural defense mechanism that we NEED.

Other times we don't have the experience, information, motivation, interest, or time to confront or relieve a fear. An active fear of the unknown is reasonable, in generic terms. It is a reasonable defense that prevents us from doing unwise things all of the time. This I guess will depend on how you define "unwise". If you're open to losing your money, life, or reputation then perhaps fear is a detriment to you. However, if you're relatively carefree with those concerns and chose to live your life according to what is new and unfamiliar, then you are confronting the wisdom of our society, because it doesn't really know much about that. There's a new movie coming out with Sean Penn called "Into the Wild" about a real life account of a guy who abandoned all of his possessions and hitchhiked to Alaska to try to return to nature.

Consumer fear is one specialization of fear I am interested in unpacking, it's a unique set of problems that amounts to "mass fear" which is the most ignorant and terrible kind of fear. You wake up to realize your fears are unfounded, and what's worse, is that HAVE taken advantage of your fear to legal, political, or financial profit

Guilt Free Yoghurt - Nov 21, 2013, 11:58p
Thanks for posting this - read it at just the right time! Thanks.

But I think Far of Guilt (FOG) is even worse than you write about. Here's why...

The acts of self-censorship and restriction that Fear of Guilt (FOG) can drive us to, such as leashes on children, not looking at (or being able to speak with) people of the opposite sex, cause turmoil deep in our psyche.

Repressed natural activities will eventually turn bad and resurface in destructive ways...

This can turn ordinary people who have not even done anything wrong (are just fearful of being guilty) into angry and abusive people. It's a slippery slope.

It can manifest in marriages, partnerships, parenting, business... you name it.

Sometimes fear of guilt can end up making you do things you would not have done... things you really do need to hide! And then... you regret.

The sooner we let go and lift the FOG the better.

Love from,

Guilt Free Yoghurt

Anonymous - Nov 19, 2017, 11:06a
You are wrong, God alone is enough.

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