When we hurt someone, we ask ourselves how much responsibility we bear for the damage done. If we release ourselves from all responsibility, we do not have to feel guilty. If we accept full or partial responsibility, the groundwork for guilt is laid.
Guilt is failing to live up to the standards we set up for ourselves. We feel the “pangs” or the “sting” of conscience. I especially relate to philosopher Herbert Morris’ description of guilt. He wrote,
“We may think of the ‘bite of conscience’ and the picture before us then is that of a man turned against himself, a man making himself suffer, a man resembling a scorpion. More than this, the man who feels guilty often seeks pain and somehow sees it as appropriate because of his guilt… When we think of what it is to feel guilty then, we think not only of painful feelings but of something that is owed; and pain is somehow connected with paying what one owes.”
I had dropped out of school a few weeks before I had my accident. I was already feeling guilty about my inadequacies as a therapist and the disappointment I caused my parents by dropping out of school. The accident sent my guilt level into the stratosphere. Without thinking about it, I kept putting myself in punishing situations. I dated one man who cheated on me and one who borrowed money I knew he would never return. I signed up for a weekend encounter group. For three days, the group members took turns telling me that I was too intense, too uptight, and put out bad vibes. I never told them what had happened only a few months earlier, which might have elicited more kindness or at least muted their attack.
As bad as guilt feels, it can be useful in motivating corrective actions. When we feel guilty, we want to set things right. We apologize, try to fix things or make amends, and resolve to do better in the future. When the damage we cause is not reparable, guilt can motivate us to take other corrective actions. One CADI I know spoke to high school students and made a video about reckless driving. I sent an anonymous donation to cover college tuition for the older brother of the child I ran over. These steps don’t add up to compensation for the damage caused, but they make us feel better and do some good in the world.
Some of us continue to feel guilty no matter how hard we try to make amends. Nothing we do is enough. Guilt dominates our lives, a punitive parent living in our head who constantly reprimands us and forbids us from enjoying life. For years, in the middle of enjoying myself with friends, I’d flash on images of my accident. “How can you laugh after what you did?” I’d ask myself. Then I could add guilt about having fun to guilt about the accident itself. But guilt is not something we can measure out in precise proportion to our actual responsibility for damage. When is guilt excessive? When is it inadequate? We all need to ask ourselves these questions.
Guilt is about what we do; shame is about who we are. In another blog post, I’ll write about how accidents can trigger shame as well as guilt.
 (Morris, On Guilt and Innocence, 1976, p. 89-90).