I'm still learning a lot about myself. For instance, I was prompted recently to think about "guilt." A reader writes:
Sometimes I feel what I think may be guilt, but there's always a metaphorical voice in the back of my head telling me, "No, you only feel that way because your image was tarnished." That "voice" is incredibly difficult to pay attention to, by the way. I feel a horrible feeling whenever I do something that hurts someone and it can be linked back to me. If there is no link to me, I don't feel anything. It's very hard for me to differentiate between this and guilt, and I've frequently used it to justify my own humanity. But why don't I feel such things if nobody knows who caused it? It can't be guilt. I only care when there are consequences for me.I reply:
That is interesting how you feel bad only when you are caught, essentially. I mean, it's a trite phrase -- "he's only sorry he got caught" -- but it is so true for me. I can actually feel really really badly about things that I got caught for, for whatever reason. But the phrase doesn't fit exactly. It's not like I feel disappointed that I couldn't get away with it. I just feel ... out of sorts. I feel like the world is an ugly place where I don't belong. That is what makes me feel bad. Definitely not, "oh, poor person I hurt." It's more like, "poor me for having to live in this ugly world and deal with this." This happened to me very recently when I stole/borrowed something from my neighbor, hoping she would never find out before I returned it. She did find out, though, and confronted me about it. Or she at least asked me about it and I didn't know what she knew so I just came clean, but spun a story of emergency, etc., figuring that would be better for me than to be caught in a lie. But she wouldn't have it. She threatened to call the authorities. Now that seemed like an overreaction by anyone's standards, but for some reason it deeply disturbed me. I think I realized how vulnerable I am, how hated I am just by virtue of what I am. I didn't really think about it at the time, but what you wrote really made sense to me. I wouldn't have felt the least tinge of guilt if I had never been caught, but being caught made me feel all sorts of guilt, or what felt like guilt at least. Maybe it was just regret.