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How Guilt Can Change Us

     Circumstances may time and again move us to act in ways contrary to how we see ourselves. Maybe it happens unexpectedly without our intention. Or perhaps doing so was convenient at the time. But ...

     Circumstances may time and again move us to act in ways contrary to how we see ourselves. Maybe it happens unexpectedly without our intention. Or perhaps doing so was convenient at the time. But when our actions are inconsistent with our beliefs, how does this affect us?

     When we do something that contradicts the values we believe in or when we find ourselves acting in ways that run counter to our self image, our mind struggles with this inconsistency. We get disturbed. We feel uncomfortable. We become distressed. Tension is created within us, because our very behavior now poses a threat to the way we see ourselves.

     To illustrate this, the act of lying when we strongly believe in honesty can produce this tension. Some would refer to this tension as guilt.

     Our mind struggles with this contradiction between behavior and belief. Anxiety is thus created. To rid ourselves of this mental discomfort, we are driven to a decision.  We become faced with a choice between atoning for this apparently inconsistent act or changing our view of ourselves in order to accommodate this seemingly alien behavior of ours.

     If we choose to keep our valued beliefs – if we do not want our self-image threatened by this inconsistent behavior, then our likely decision would be to compensate. In romantic relationships, this is often the case when one of the partners commits an act of dishonesty. The guilty partner feels bad and becomes compelled to do something good like buy a gift for the innocent partner. Sometimes, it becomes obvious to the innocent partner especially when the guilty partner doesn’t usually do things like this. This compensatory act is however not for the innocent partner’s benefit. The guilty partner does this in order to clean his tarnished self image and restore his self esteem. A further consequence of this is the possibility that the guilty partner will make a promise to himself to avoid a repetition of this threatening behavior. Behavior thus changes in favor of the belief. In our example, the partner who lied will not only give presents to the innocent partner, but will also resolve not to lie again.

     This compensatory act happens in many parallel situations throughout different types of social interactions. It is usually the case that guilt unexpectedly drives a person to do something good.

     But what if the act becomes more important to the individual than his self image? What happens when the individual is not moved to compensate for this inconsistent behavior? Using our earlier illustration, instead of compensating for the act of lying, the individual decides to adopt this new behavior. This will result in a modification of his self image. In this case, it is the belief that will change in favor of the new behavior. The partner who lied will feel ok with lying and won’t be bothered when he lies again in the future.

     Changing the way we see ourselves in order to adopt a new and inconsistent behavior is the probable outcome when one’s self image is not very clear. An undefined character is often prone to change each time the social pressures of a novel situation are encountered. Self awareness is extremely important in the continued integrity of one’s identity.  An examination of our values, attitudes and beliefs fosters a clear mental picture of ourselves allowing our actions and our self image to remain consistent with each other. This will permit one’s character to stay intactFeature Articles, regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves.


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Frederick Fabella, PhD is a graduate and undergraduate professor in the Philippines. He is an editorial board member of the IRP international research journal and a Fellow of the Royal Institution Singapore. He is the author of Transcendence: Essays For Personal Reflection. His blog can be found at Meanings and Perceptions.

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