Guilt is not just a feeling, but a fact. The fact is that, if we are alcoholic, our disease led us to hurt a lot of people and inflict a lot of damage. The feeling is based on that unpalatable but undeniable truth. We stress this point because the ascendant view in our culture is the opposite, that guilt is not a fact but a feeling, that there is no objective basis for the emotion, and therefore no reason we should feel it. Guilt is bad, we are told. Don’t feel guilty.
The Big Book and the 12&12 do not deny our guilt. But neither do they dwell on it. Instead, they provide us with a program of action that, if rigorously followed, is guaranteed to free us from guilt—the fact, and the feeling. In telling us to focus on where we are at fault, where we are to blame, and whom we have hurt, they are pointing us toward a proper understanding of guilt.
Seeing ourselves as being at fault, as being blameworthy, is a defining characteristic of the emotion. The perception is based on a second defining characteristic of guilt. This is a concern to be a good person, to do good, to cause no harm. If that didn't matter to us, we would lie, cheat, steal, and otherwise do wrong and we wouldn’t feel any guilt. We wouldn’t see ourselves as doing wrong; we wouldn’t see our actions as representing moral failure or as reflecting poorly on the kind of person we are.
Because being good is important to us, we feel guilty when we act in ways that say we are not. The feeling, however, is accompanied by another concern which is its third defining characteristic: a desire to be free from the guilt.
Thus guilt serves two positive and necessary functions. It alerts us to the possibility that we are acting against our better selves and doing what is wrong in our own eyes and perhaps harming someone, and it moves us to corrective action.
Guilt, however, can go wrong and become a defective emotion. We can feel guilty when we are not guilty, we can feel guilty about the wrong thing, and we can feel guiltier than we are. This happens when our concern to be good and do the right thing becomes distorted. This in turn distorts our vision. The result is that our guilt is unwarranted and false. It doesn’t fit the facts. In our desire to be free from it, such guilt can drive us to wrong action—such as getting wasted to drown out the feeling.
Behind defective emotions, there usually are defects of character, and behind most of these, pride. In the first quote below, Bill W. asks an alcoholic who is overwhelmed with guilt over his relapse, whether his “excessive guilt” might not be a case of “reverse pride.” In this sort of pride we don’t feel we are superior, but we feel bad that we are not; we don’t feel we are better than others, but we feel we ought to be. We fail to recognize our fundamental imperfection and flawedness. The desire to be good—otherwise to be admired—is not tempered by the humble acceptance of our human condition. Thus it is perverted and vitiated.
Discerning true guilt from false guilt can be challenging. The starting point is willingness, humility, and honesty. If we have that, we can start at the very simplest level, which is what we do the first time we take inventory in Step 4. We start with the questions the Big Book suggests: Where were we at fault? Where were we to blame? Whom have we hurt?
The purpose of the first two questions is to help us answer the third. Because if we actually have harmed someone, that would constitute fairly objective evidence that our guilt is true and justified, that we have done wrong, are at fault, and are rightly to blame. This won’t hold in every single instance (because we can cause harm unintentionally and without negligence, and thus not be morally blameworthy), but it will in the overwhelming majority of the cases we would examine. It’s only a start, but it is the right start.
If we have done a thorough job the first time around in Steps 4 through 10, we will find that most of our guilt is gone. If we are still wracked with guilt however, we may have to question the quality of our first journey through those Steps. We may have to do them all over again.
Perhaps this time we may have to zero in directly on our feelings of guilt and take full inventory of the emotion itself, going over all the situations and the people, places, and things that continue to arouse the guilt in us, examining the defects which lie behind it, and practicing the principles which will relieve us of those defects, and with them of our guilt.
Sometimes, unforgiveness (a form of pride) is the hardest of those defects to surrender, and its opposite, forgiveness (a form of humility) the hardest of the principles to practice. If we still feel guilty, chances are we haven’t forgiven ourselves. God and those we hurt may have, but we haven’t.
If that is the case, we may need to work self-examination more closely with prayer and meditation in Step 11, as the 12&12 recommends. We may have to ask God for the grace to make his will for us our standard of right and wrong, the foundation of what it means to be and to do good. We may have to ask for the grace to see ourselves, and the people and situations surrounding our guilt, through his eyes rather than our own. To the degree that we are able to do that, to that extent we will let go of our guilt and find release from it at last.
[Image: Wynn C., who joined AA in 1947 at the age of 33 and helped start more than 80 meetings in hospitals, jails, and prisons in southern California; author of Big Book story "Freedom from Bondage." For Q&A about it, please click on link. For an audio of this post, please click on link.]