This time, we will go for the punchline from the outset: Guilt is a healthy response as a reaction to the past, yet it is a dysfunctional response to our posture for the future. In other words, if you have done things you should be ashamed of, not feeling guilt would be a bad thing. To that extent, guilt is good. But if the guilt is undermining your confidence in your ability to move forward in your life, it is a really bad thing.
Let us unpack this. Human nature can allow a person all manner of self-delusions. One of the most attractive and prevalent is to externalize responsibility. We can tell ourselves that the wrong things we did were down to the influence of other people, circumstances beyond our control, or because we lacked to tools to make a proper judgment. Sometimes, these explanations are true; more often, they are cheap excuses. So, shame and guilt are usually the most rational and appropriate responses to things we have done wrong.
Guilt = Personal Responsibility
Experiencing guilt and shame means identifying what psychologists call an “internal locus of control,” namely that while we do not control all our circumstances, we have agency over the important choices in our lives. Shame and guilt are therefore profoundly empowering. They are an affirmation that we are not powerless about what decisions we make or what happens to us. We accept responsibility, because we believe we are largely in control of our destinies. By contrast, the person who avoids accepting blame is buying into a narrative of helplessness, wishing to believe that we are pawns in a game over which we have limited influence.
We live in a world that tries to “emancipate” us from our shame and to “heal” us from our guilt. This makes us no freer or healthy, but instead perpetuates the delusion that there is no such thing as personal responsibility. It is a whole lot better to think and act as a grown up, recognizing that we are complex human beings who are capable of making mistakes. We accept that some of our past actions were wrong, and we recognize that it was our poor choices that led to those things being done.
Accepting responsibility also allows us to decide that on a new path going forward. Because we take ownership of our action and embrace our own power to choose, we therefore feel shame and guilt over bad things we did in the past, but for the same measure can be confident that we can determine our actions in the future. Only people who believe themselves to be powerless about past actions have reason to be insecure about their choices going forward.
When we meet someone who we are romantically serious about, we want to get as emotionally close to them as possible. The primary method we use to establish that emotional closeness is “self-disclosure,” mutually sharing ever-increasingly personal information about ourselves. This creates a bond that gives rise to the feelings of love that are helpful in cementing a romantic relationship.
But this beautiful process that generates in us to much happiness comes up against an obstacle when we realize that there are things about ourselves that we have reason not to disclose. This creates a tension within us between the instinct to practice “full disclosure” and the instinct of “self-preservation.” This unresolved internal conflict becomes the proverbial “fly in the ointment,” undermining the budding connection.
Know, therefore, that not everything in your past should be disclosed. It is well known that revealing details about past relationship to one’s date (or spouse) almost never contributes positively to the current relationship. Some things are better left unsaid. There are some things that should not remain hidden, such as significant medical information of details that could have halachic or legal implications. Most personal failings, however, are best left unsaid. It may feel good to “let it all out, warts and all,” but it is unlikely to lead to anything positive.
What about the drive for mutual self-disclosure? You need to remember what the Rambam wrote that someone who does true teshuva is “no longer the same person who did the past deed.” You become reborn. The past acts are only relevant in the present for the lessons they may teach. They are not part of your current reality. Leaving them out of the picture does not lesson your full disclosure about who you are presently. It may be difficult to resist the inch, but if you can let go of the past and focus on the future you will be better off.