Why Do We Feel Guilt?

Last updated on March 25, 2020

house on the hill
I stayed in this house one night, and promised the owners some photos that I never delivered.

Do You Ever Feel Guilty?

It comes up from time to time for me, and it often brings me back to doing The Work.

But how do you do The Work with guilt? It’s kind of a strange emotion. It’s not like anger, where it’s usually easy to find the stressful thoughts to question. Guilt is a bit more covert.

Here’s What I Notice About Guilt

Underlying my feeling of guilt is often the belief that I need or want someone’s approval.

Not getting their approval can lead to guilt or anger. I feel anger if I’m not getting their approval because of something they are doing. For example, if they are not being fair, or they are being “impossible” to please.

But I feel guilty when I think it’s something I’m doing that is preventing me from getting their approval. For example, if I’m not doing something that they want me to do.

Instead of owning, “I don’t really want to do it,” I opt for guilt. Feeling guilty is a way of holding onto both of my conflicting desires: the desire for their approval, and the desire to stay in my integrity.

By feeling guilty, I don’t have to choose.

Guilt Shows Me My Desire for Approval

And not just my desire for approval, but often a desire for approval that goes against my integrity.

For example, I took the photo above of the little house on the hill covered with flowers back in 2009. I was photographing the balsamroot flowers that spring in Washington State. While wandering the hills, I came across this house and asked for permission to park there and to photograph on their property.

They were very generous and allowed me. And they invited me to stay overnight so that I could get up early the next morning when the light was good. I was grateful, and accepted, and got some great photos the next day. On leaving, I promised them a photo.

But the Problem Was That I Offered Because I Thought I Should

My offer was not 100% sincere. Yes, I was sincerely grateful to them, but I was also in the middle of moving, starting a new job, and dealing with a lot of competition for my time. I was promising them something that I wasn’t in a position to deliver easily.

But instead of not offering it, I acted out of guilt. I did what I thought I should do. And I felt guilty. Guilty, first of all, for leaving my integrity in the first place, and then guilty for not delivering what I said I would.

Over the months and years after that—despite my guilt, or maybe because of it—I could never could bring myself to make good on my promise. To this day, I’ve never sent them a photo. Of course, I conveniently lost their name and address after some time, making it even harder.

So Here Comes The Work

Here are some thoughts I can question:

I want them to think I’m very grateful.
I want them to like my photography.
I want them to remember me glowingly.

Without these thoughts, all of which have to do with getting their approval, I could have stayed in my integrity and not offered any more than I could at the time.

But It’s Never Too Late

I plan to question those thoughts. I may also write a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet on them in the moment when I was promising these things.

And I may also question some other guilty beliefs that have come up since then:

I have to make good on my promise.
If I don’t deliver the photos, they will be disappointed in me.

It’s Funny, I Haven’t Even Done The Work on It Yet

But I’m already feeling lighter.

If I question some of these thoughts related to the guilt, who knows what I may do! I might even drive out to their place and deliver them a CD with all my photos from that shoot.

Not because I want their approval, but only if it feels like my integrity to do so. My work will help me find my truth and open the options for me to take.

Have a great week,

“The irony is that the struggle to win love and approval makes it very difficult to experience them. Chronic approval seekers don’t realize that they are loved and supported not because of but despite their efforts. And the more strenuously they seek, the less likely they are to notice.” Byron Katie, I Need Your Love, Is That True?

About the author

Todd Smith has been doing The Work of Byron Katie on an almost daily basis since 2007. He is just as excited about this simple process of self-inquiry today as he was when he first came across it. He also enjoys writing about The Work, and training others in the subtleties of this meditative process. Join Todd for The Work 101 online course, private sessions, virtual retreats, and his ongoing Inquiry Circle group.

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