I’m sure many of us can agree to the fact that life as a teenager can understandably be stressful. To many, it can seem like this perpetual balancing act of academics, extracurriculars, and a social life, where when one area takes precedence over the others, the others falter into the background. Yet, what is expected in an imperfect system are perfect results. Whether it’s working a job and having the compulsion to match the work rate of your coworkers, or maybe it’s the need to have a ‘high school experience’ of fun and adventure, we are constantly setting millions of standards for ourselves whether we know it or not.
But what happens when the inevitable comes, when we realize our preconceived expectations are not met in the present moment due to a mistake or wearing ourselves thin? This is typically where the feeling of guilt comes into play. Guilt is an emotional response to when we feel inadequate, that our actions (or lack thereof) don’t demonstrate the core values that we hold. In such a demanding, perfection-obsessed culture, its presence can seem overwhelming, indicting us at every corner for not fulfilling our endless list of obligations we hold ourselves to.
While a certain amount of accountability is crucial in learning from our experiences and progressing as a person, guilt differs in that it fixates on our flaws and impairs us from moving on. It keeps us trapped in a mindset that there’s something intrinsically wrong with us, that we need to fundamentally change who we are. But this is far from the truth, finding acceptance and being content with our present selves is how we let down our burdens to be free. As you read on, I hope to show you all a deeper look into what guilt is and how understanding the root of the problem is the first step in finding peace of mind.
It’s on Us
“Vindication had no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people,” relays Tara Westover in her award-winning book Educated. Coming from an emotionally and physically abusive home, Tara reshapes her identity when she finally goes against her parents and essentially cuts them off. While she recounts the years of trauma induced by her parents, she still feels the underlying guilt of not staying with them despite their harmful nature.
This is the main distinction that guilt possesses from other emotions: it doesn’t follow traditional reasoning and justification. We can sit there all day long, tallying up all the offenses and mistakes the other person has committed, but it still never validates any injustice we see in ourselves. In Tara’s case, the route she took was objectively rational, yet she can’t seem to convince herself fully that she made the right decision. I think she accurately highlights the calamity of where guilt stems from, how it’s less about others, and all about how we see ourselves. It’s this greater fear of what we might be that trumps all other variables, fearing that the life we’ve been living has been out of sync with our self-image.
We all want to believe that we’re kind, compassionate people, yet it’s hard to fully internalize these traits into our identities. Many of us feed off of external validation where the approval of others is what cements our internal qualities as fact. But since we can’t always tell what others are thinking, there lingers this persistent ounce of doubt that says maybe we aren’t what we thought we were. And when we feel that our actions contradict our moral values, we start believing all the hidden insecurities we hold are true because there’s evidence to support it. Our insecurities are usually built out of a history of feeling like we haven’t been a certain way in the past, that we are still out on trial in determining whether we are innocent or guilty. When guilt arises, these feelings resurface, questioning and reevaluating our character. That’s why guilt strikes so deep despite our deductive reasoning: it attacks us in our areas of vulnerability.
You are More than Enough
The obvious solution suggests that we should let go of our insecurities and begin to accept who we are. But I acknowledge that this is much easier said than done. A commonly held belief is that satisfaction with our present selves means that we are unmotivated or giving up. The choice seems binary, that it’s either our enjoyment or how much we can accomplish, and to choose one means to sacrifice the other. However, enjoying the present moment is how we can take in experiences to their fullest extent and optimize our growth from them. Understanding that we are more than enough, that being ourselves and continuing in our journey through life, is how we can remain resilient no matter the circumstances.
We all want to be happy, but sometimes it can feel like we don’t deserve it. Whatever guilt you may experience that seems irredeemable, acknowledging your intense feelings of wanting to improve is a sign of your innate goodness. There’s a shared humanity between all of us, and the betterment of yourself will help the people around you just as much as it helps you. We can’t get in our way by viewing ourselves as undeserving of reformation; the past is in the past, so keep your head up so you don’t miss what’s already in front of you. Guilt is understandably painful, but it’s finding closure in ourselves that ultimately makes us stronger. Remember, sometimes it’s the most broken hearts that are the ones capable of the most love.
Westover, Tara. Educated. Windmill Books, 2018.