Emotional Sobriety: Guilt

Wynn C.,

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? (p.69).

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 (p. 98). 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.]   

As Bill Sees It"Could I also suggest that you look at excessive guilt for what it is? Nothing but a sort of reverse pride . . . you should not blame yourself for failure; you can be penalized only for refusing to try for better things." – Bill W., As Bill Sees It 

Big Book"[H]e came to the conclusion that it was better to take those risks than to stand before his Creator guilty of such ruinous slander. He saw he had to place the outcome in God’s hands or he would soon start drinking again, and all would be lost anyhow." – Big Book  

12&12"This feeling of being at one with God and man, this emerging from isolation through the open and honest sharing of our terrible burden of guilt, brings us to a resting place where we may prepare ourselves for the following Steps toward a full and meaningful sobriety." – 12&12   

Life Recovery Bible"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." – 1 John 1:9
"Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." – Luke 15:7  

"Nothing is more wretched than the mind of a man conscious of his guilt." – Plautus  

Juvenal"Whatever guilt is perpetrated by some evil prompting, is grievous to the author of the crime. This is the first punishment of guilt that no one who is guilty is acquitted at the judgment seat of his own conscience." – Juvenal   

"Let wickedness escape as it may at the bar, it never fails in doing justice upon itself; for every guilty person is his own hangman." – Seneca  

"The greatest incitement to guilt is the hope of sinning with impunity." – Cicero  

"Men's minds are too ingenious in palliating guilt in themselves." – Livy   

Publilius Syrus
"A guilty conscience never feels secure." – Publilius Syrus    

"Tears of repentance wash out the stain of guilt." – St. Augustine    

Lady Macbeth
"Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" – Lady Macbeth  

William Wordsworth"From the body of one guilty deed a thousand ghostly fears and haunting thoughts proceed." – William Wordsworth  

William Cowper
"Glory built on selfish principles is shame and guilt." – William Cowper  

"A guilty mind can be eased by nothing but repentance, by which what was ill done is revoked and morally voided and undone." – Benjamin Whichcote  

Albert Schweitzer
"A man does not have to be an angel in order to be a saint." – Albert Schweitzer  

Audre Lorde"Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.” – Audre Lorde  

J. M. Coetzee
"[I]f we are going to be kind, let it be out of simple generosity, not because we fear guilt or retribution."– J. M. Coetzee

Joseph Delaney"There was more than one type of guilt. You might do something horrible that you later regretted. But you could also feel guilty for something you'd not done!” – Joseph Delaney  

Fulton J. Sheen"All denial of guilt keeps people out of the area of love and, by inducing self-righteousness, prevents a cure. The two facts of healing in the physical order are these: A physician cannot heal us unless we put ourselves into his hands, and we will not put ourselves into his hands unless we know that we are sick. In like manner, a sinner’s awareness of sin is one requisite for his recovery; the other is his longing for God. When we long for God, we do so not as sinners, but as lovers." – Fulton J. Sheen  

Gretchen Rubin"Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they're big, flashing signs that something needs to change." – Gretchen Rubin  

Maxim Gorky
"Let us not search for the guilty ones only among others; let us speak the bitter truth: we are all guilty, each and every one of us." – Maxim Gorky 

Vittorio Alfieri
"To err is human; but contrition felt for the crime distinguishes the virtuous from the wicked." – Vittorio Alfieri  

French Proverb
There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience." – French Proverb  

Coco Chanel
Guilt is perhaps the moist painful companion to death." – Coco Chanel   

Kenneth L. Woodward"All religions remind us that actions have consequences for which guilt can and must be acknowledged, forgiveness humbly begged, reconciliation sought." – Kenneth L. Woodward 

Dean Koontz
"If allowed to be, the heart is self-policing, and a reasonable measure of guilt guards against corruption." – Dean Koontz  

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
"Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death." – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross   

The only things you give yourself when you cheat are fear and guilt." – Anonymous 

Oscar Wilde
"Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future." – Oscar Wilde   

Daily Reflections"Only through positive action can I remove the remains of guilt and shame brought on by alcohol. Step Eight provides me with a way of forgiving myself. I alleviate much of the hidden damage when I make my list of those I have hurt. In making amends, I free myself of burdens, thus contributing to my healing.”   AA’s Daily Reflections  

ODAT"When I am troubled by a feeling of guilt, I cannot put into my day all [the good] I am capable of. I must rid myself of this feeling, not by pushing it aside, but by identifying it and correcting the cause. Free of this weight, I can put all my best into my day’s work and my spiritual growth. Then I will have something worthwhile to give others, instead of concentrating on my own frustrations." – One Day at a Time in Al-Anon  

Courage to Change"Guilt is a burden that keeps me from giving myself fully and freely to the present. I can begin to rid my mind of guilt by quietly admitting where and when I have done wrong to people, including myself." – Al-Anon’s Courage to Change   

Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts "I am grateful for my assets and accept my liabilities. Through willingness and humility, I am freed to progress in my recovery and achieve freedom from guilt." – Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts   

The Promise of a New Day"Often we are reluctant to track down the source of our guilt or resentment; we’re afraid that what we find may force us to change the way we live and work, and change is painful.” – The Promise of a New Day  

PTP123"Our attitude toward the past is to repair the damage done, put it behind us, and try to not repeat it. We do that through Steps 4 to10. If we do our job, what is mendable will mend and the guilt, regret, shame, resentment, depression and other such feelings concerning our past will wane. We will then use its lessons to help others." – PTP123  

PTP4"Rather than deny our guilt, our task in taking inventory is to establish when it is true to the facts and when it is not. If we stick to answering the question of whom we have hurt, the facts will become clear in most cases." – PTP4  

For more PTP123 passages on guilt, see pp. 15, 25, 196, 207. For PTP4 passages, see Chapter 10: Guilt and Remorse, pp. 175–198. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on 164andmore.com and search under guilt and its cognates. See also entries under guilt in As Bill Sees It. On this site, see Appendix 3: Common Manifestations of Self: Defective Emotions – Guilt.  

Additional Resources

  1. Meditation for 07/17 in One-Day at a Time in Al-Anon     
  2. Meditations for 04/29, 05/23, and 08/29 in Al-Anon’s The Courage to Change          
  3. Guilt: The Bite of Conscience, by Herant Katchadourian     
  4. The Reader, 2009 movie with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. Guilt and shame in  post-Nazi Germany. Also, Sophie’s Choice, 1982 movie with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. Overly long (2 1/2 hrs.) and at times quirky, but extraordinary performance  by Streep makes it all worthwhile     
  5. Three great classics on guilt: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and  Franz Kafka’s The Trial  

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