“As for the errors I make, the only punishment I acknowledge for having made them is my awareness of those errors, and having to live with it…,” writes Lebanese writer Joumana Haddad in her book I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman. Living with such awareness is certainly not easy. It results in a distressing emotion commonly known as guilt.
NASA engineer Robert Ebeling was plagued by guilt after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. He was one among the five booster rocket engineers who worked for NASA contractor Morton Thiokol. In fact, Ebeling was the first one to raise alarm a day before the launch. Yet, he felt accountable for the mission’s failure and the loss of seven astronauts’ lives. The engineer always felt he could have stopped that fateful launch. This burden led him to retire from an enviable position in NASA and tend to a bird refuge for the remainder of his life.
Clearly, guilt is triggered internally and the victim bears a significant responsibility for his actions. Social psychologist Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory offers some insight into what causes guilt. Festinger says each of us has a deep-rooted idea about who we are and who we ought to be. We almost always strive to become an ideal version of ourselves. But whenever we are faced with a contradiction between our current self and our ideal self, we are internally disturbed. This is termed cognitive dissonance. It causes guilt–a form of mental stress and discomfort. Evidently, the feeling arises when we realise that we have not lived up to our standards. Often, a guilty person feels as if s/he has violated a moral code of conduct.
According to psychologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, many a time our less-than-perfect behaviours eventually become a thing of the past. We too may have noticed that many pangs of the moral conscience heal with time. For instance, a person who has had an extramarital affair or has extorted money from someone may feel shameful and guilty for a significant period. Eventually, s/he comes to terms with it, makes amends, and moves on.
Guilt provides clarity as to what is acceptable and not acceptable conduct. A little bit of guilt prompts us to do good for ourselves and others.