any one moment in our lives, we can't change our past experiences.
We can change (modestly) our future experiences, however. I think
determinism, although it may seem weird to you at first, has a lot to
offer the overly guilty and the overly critical person--see method #4 in
chapter 14 for more.
Suppose you decide you have done something immoral--something
inconsiderate and hurtful. It is possible to regret that action, to believe
it was ethically wrong, without feeling terribly guilty. If, as Kaufmann
suggests, however, you assume responsibility for your mistakes (no
one else can), you can now plan the future so that you make up for
your wrongdoings. As in 12-step programs, you can atone; you can
right the wrongs (see Mowrer, 1975). There are some cautions: guard
against doing things that would re-open old wounds in others, just to
relieve your guilt. Don't "confess everything" as a way to get punished
or to "get it off your chest," if the information could seriously hurt
others. Don't assume there is no way to make up for the past. Even if
the person you hurt is dead, you could make an appropriate sacrifice
to someone or to society as a substitute.
If your excessive guilty feelings are associated with remembering
what you did with certain people, one could use desensitization to
reduce the guilty response, just as if it were an unwanted fear
response. See chapter 12.
Suppose, as will often happen with unhappy people, you feel bad
or sad or unworthy but can not pinpoint any particular immoral
behavior (or thoughts) that might have caused your negative mood.
The big "sins" in our society are anger and sex (see chapters 7 and
10). Look there first. Next, look for anger or guilt towards the people,
usually parents, who may have taught you to dislike yourself. Also look
into old relationships in which you hurt someone or were hurt,
especially divorce or infidelity. Remember that many women cry
instead of allowing themselves to feel rage. So, if you cry a lot, look
for repressed anger. Next, look inward for guilt about not helping
others in need (chapter 3). Lastly, as discussed in the section on self-
criticism, check to see if you could be using guilt to manipulate others.
And, ask if others might be laying a "guilt trip" on us. Increased
awareness of all these possible factors could help you understand your
guilt and cope with it.
Useful readings about guilt include Madow (1988) and Preston
(1989). Freeman & DeWolf (1990), Freeman & Strean (1995), and
Klein & Gotti (1991) help us handle regrets of our past and fears of
doing something in the future we will regret. Don't forget to atone and
ask others for forgiveness (see chapter 7). Don't forget to forgive
yourself (Flanigan, 1996).