What to Do with the Guilt

I’ve been writing for a while about the challenges of reconciliation (in The Road to Reconciliation) from the perspective of both the victim and the offender, as well as those who inhabit both categories. This is a pop out section addressed to those who feel guilty for something they have done. It describes the crucial first step: identifying what you did.

Admit the Exact Nature of the Wrong

First I’m going to talk about an essential part of the process of going from wrong to reconciliation, a part that many people, incredibly, try to pass over. What is this indispensable but neglected component?

Identifying what you did wrong.

People often want to pass right over this part to get to forgiveness, to argue their case, or to go right back to doing it again. Others disregard identifying what they did wrong and, instead, heap punishment on themselves for how they are wrong, without any recognition of what they did. This trick of shame keeps them stuck and miserable while insuring that they’ll learn nothing from the mistake and go right back to doing it again, remaining under the thumb of shame. Guilt, on the other hand, demands that you identify the exact nature of the wrong.

So, let’s get started.

Before you go to anyone to make an apology, you should first take a few minutes, or a few days, to sit down and write a statement of responsibility. This doesn’t need to be long, but it does need to be thorough and accurate. It also needs to be written, not because you’re necessarily going to have anyone read it, but because you’ll take more time and more care for something you write than something you just say or ponder. You’ll also have fewer distractions, so you don’t get caught up in defending yourself, responding to someone’s reaction, or otherwise losing track of what you set out to do. You’ll also come away with a written record of your accomplishment, indisputable documentation that you got real and honest, if only with yourself. Don’t let a tendency to make spelling or grammar errors stop you. It doesn’t matter if your handwriting is bad; no one else in the world needs to read it. You’re doing this for you.

Let me give you an example, first, of how NOT to write a statement of responsibility, then how to do it correctly. What follows is something someone might write on their first attempt. This is from a man who beat his child and, years later, wrote a letter to her, in an attempt to reconcile. Please note, it’s not necessary to address your letter of responsibility to the person you hurt, as he does, nor is it necessary to give it to them. We’ll talk more about that later.

He wrote:

“I’m sorry I hit you, but you were a bad kid, you never listened and I was afraid that you’d grow up not having any respect for authority. My father used to hit us worse than that and it installed discipline in me so that I was able to be successful in everything I did. I wanted that for you. I love you.”

There’s so much wrong with this statement, it’s hard to know where to start. If you were ever on the receiving end of an apology like that, the only reason you would ever grant forgiveness is because you found it too frustrating or embarrassing to continue, so you just wanted the process to stop. I suppose if the writer had never acknowledged that he hit his child, it would be progress; but I think he can do a lot better than that before moving on.

Let’s start at the beginning.

“I’m sorry.”
It’s not necessary in a statement of responsibility to apologize. Your focus at this point should be to identify your behavior, not state your feelings. You can certainly say you’re sorry later on, if you really feel that way, after you have stated what you need to be sorry for. Incidentally, I don’t think this guy really is sorry for hitting his child; I think he’s sorry he has to write a statement of responsibility.

“I hit you.”
This is the best part of this man’s statement. He’s describing the offending behavior. It might be better if he gave more detail; if he said, for instance, whether he punched her in the face or spanked her on her bottom. If he gave that kind of detail, there certainly would be a clearer picture of the offense. He would not be hiding behind vagueness and obfuscation.

This word should not appear anywhere in a statement of responsibility. Avoids buts. Buts produce bullshit. Anything that comes after a but in a statement of responsibility should be flushed out of sight.

There may well be mitigating factors: you may well have had good intentions; you definitely had your reasons for doing what you did. However, a statement of responsibility is not the place for excuses. It’s the place for a clear-eyed acknowledgement of the offense.

“You were a bad kid, you never listened.”
Here the man totally abandoned the project of making a statement of responsibility in favor of making an accusation. He turned the victim into the offender and himself into the victim. He’s playing the victim in a bald-faced attempt to garner sympathy or to weasel out of the wrongdoing.

Of course, there is a context surrounding every misdeed. You may be right to want to address the crimes committed against you, too; but this is not the place for that. The statement of responsibility is the place to focus on your actions. You can hope that, in doing so, you’d be modeling the type of forthrightness that you would hope from anyone admitting offenses against you.

Besides, just as your crime was a response to their crime, their crime may have been a response to another one of yours. The victim in this example may have been a “bad kid” who “never listened”; but, how did she get that way? I think it’s reasonable to believe that, before this guy ever hit his child, he was given to yelling. What happens when a father yells at his daughter? She doesn’t have to work too hard to listen.

“I was afraid that you’d grow up not having any respect for authority.”
Here this man is stating the intention he had for doing what he did. You could look at this two ways. On one hand, there’s a place for confessing his fears and talking about his aspirations for his daughter. On the other hand, when people explain their intentions, they seldom fail to put some spin on it. It’s always good intentions they disclose. We might believe the road to hell is paved with good intentions because no one ever mentions the bad ones. I think that if this man dug deep, he might come up with other intentions. He might say, for instance, “I was afraid I was losing my authority and you had no respect for me. I decided that if you weren’t going to respect me, I could at least make you fear me.”

When you complete the first draft of your statement of responsibility, you should be suspect of anything that puts you in a positive light. Look closer at your motives. I’m not saying this because I believe you’re a total dirt bag, incapable of doing anything good, or even, anything bad for a good reason. I’m saying it because I know that good intentions are what comes to the surface; selfishness hides within. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find that a lot of things motivate you, and not all of them are pretty.

If you ever deliver your statement of responsibility, if you ever stand up and say it to the person you hurt, anything positive is going to sound like an excuse. They’re not going to believe you’re serious about your remorse and may conclude that you’re doing it for show or other venal reasons.

“My father used to hit us worse than that and it installed discipline in me so that I was able to be successful in everything I did. I want that for you.”
I’d advise that this man imagine that he’s a little boy again, his daughter’s age. Visualize what it was like to be beaten when he was small, powerless, and utterly at the mercy of his attacker. I suspect he doesn’t allow himself to go there. Instead, he’s constructed a belief that it wasn’t so bad and it was for his own good. This is what victims do to cope. It’s a form of denial. While it’s definitely possible for trauma to be used for growth, this is how people who’ve been abused grow up to be abusers. This first step is to forget the horror of it. The second step is to make yourself believe it was good. From there, it’s easy to start abusing your own child. Traumatic growth does not happen when we forget; it happens when we remember.

If this man believes discipline has been so successfully install in himself; he should ask himself whether he was really disciplined when he beat his daughter. I suspect not. I suspect he had lost control of himself and was utterly undisciplined. If this man believes he’s successful in everything he has done, why does he need to reconcile with his daughter?

“I love you.”
Here the man is making an incongruous claim, totally at odds with the rest of his statement. He beats his child, calls her a bad kid, expects that she was going to grow up to be a monster, criticizes her for not doing as well as he, and then wants her to believe that he loves her. Is this what love means to him?

Something’s missing
Wait, there are more problems with this statement of responsibility. It’s missing an account of the aftermath. After this man beat his child, what did he do then? Did he recognize he did something wrong and try to repair the damage to their relationship? Did he nurse her wounds, tenderly dry her tears, hug her, tell her he was wrong, and immediately apologize? Or did he leave her by herself, pretend it didn’t happen, deny it happened, lie, or force her to lie? Did he keep her home from school the next day out of fear the teacher would see the bruises on her face and start asking questions? What did he tell her mother? Did he say he would beat her more if she ever told anyone? Did he even need to?

After working with hundreds, if not thousands, of trauma survivors, I’ve learned that it’s what happens in the aftermath of an offense that does as much damage, if not more, than the wrong itself. It’s not the crime; it’s the coverup. The crimes of the coverup get charged to the initial offense because, if not for the crime, the coverup would never have existed; but there is a huge difference between a misdeed committed within the context of a loving, supportive, affirming environment and one which blames the victim and casts her out on her own.

Neglect, abandonment, and betrayal are more to be feared than actual abuse. Think about it. What would you rather get: a single slap in the face, or a lie? A single beating, followed by remorse; or an ongoing terror threat? A wife who slipped and slept with someone, confessing immediately thereafter; or a wife with a double life? Even in the cases of the single slap, single beating, or single slip, a lot of the damage comes from the prospect of more, the possibility of a total dissolution of the relationship, the fear of being alone.

An improved statement of responsibility
So, what would a better statement look like? A statement of responsibility this man might write after a course of therapy and an honest look inside might look something like this.

“When you were ten years old and I was a full grown man, I lost my temper and made a fist and hit you three times in the face with all the force I could. I then sent you to your room. Later, I told your mother you fell and hit the coffee table. I went on for years and pretended it didn’t happen until you brought it up. You didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. I was afraid I was losing my authority and you had no respect for me. I decided that, if you weren’t going to respect me, I could, at least make you fear me. I should have known better. I was beaten as a child, too. I should’ve remembered what that was like and not bought into the lies that it was a good thing. I failed to love you like I should and want to learn to love you better.

Oh, another thing
What we have have now is an improved statement of responsibility. But it could be better if the man looked at the incident from the eyes of his child and acknowledged a wrong he might not have thought of himself. A broken promise.

Broken Promises

While you’re at it, while you’re acknowledging the exact nature of your wrongs, don’t forget one wrong you might’ve committed that is so central that it may overshadow all others and be key to this whole business of reconciliation.

Broken promises.

Embedded in every wrong is a broken promise; a promise either declared or implied, clearly pledged or vaguely expected, guaranteed or merely hoped for. Sometimes a broken promise is the only wrong. Sometimes that one wrong is enough.

Adultery, for instance, is a broken promise. When your husband finds out you’ve been having an affair, you may actually be surprised that he cares about those vows you made so long ago. You might not think they’re so germane or vital. After all, you’re the one who broke them. The person who breaks a promise is the one who hasn’t been taking the promise as seriously.

Some promises were made so long ago, and there have been so many changes, you might think they’ve been revised. When you made your weddings vows, you might have been very young; things might’ve been very different, then. Your husband couldn’t keep his hands off you, he didn’t have that belly, he had some hair, you were both poorer, but his career was just taking off. Now, he’s been passed over for promotion four times, grown balder and fatter, and you haven’t had sex in three months. You might think you’re the victim of a bait and switch scheme. You may think that he broke the vows first by becoming a fat, bald middle manager who hasn’t gone down on you in years. You acted as though the deal was null and void.

If you really felt that way, then it’s better to say something than to just act as though the promise no longer applies. Sit down and say, “You’re fat, bald, and boring, and I’m horny and need someone with more money. I want a divorce.” I know, you wouldn’t do that. You’d feel like a witch. Is it better to protect his feelings, say nothing, and have an affair?

Many promises are made in haste because you didn’t want to talk. You agreed to clean out the garage that weekend because you didn’t want to have to tell your wife you had plans to play golf. She’s already pissed that you play so much golf and you didn’t want to have that fight again when she asked you to clean out the garage. So, you made a promise and deferred the fight to Saturday morning when your buddy was in the driveway and you’re loading your clubs. When you get home, there’s going to be hell to pay, not just because you didn’t clean out the garage; but because you broke a promise made in haste.

If you’re not sure whether you broke a promise, just ask yourself if you’ve been getting a lot of nagging. The presence of nagging is a constant irritation that obscures, but indicates, a broken promise. If she’s on your back all the time to clean out the garage, it’s not because she’s a nag, a shrew, a hypercritical, impossible-to-please, woman; but because you promised to clean out the garage and didn’t.

There are some promises that you’re held to, even though you never explicitly made them. This promise is assumed when you take on a role. When you climb into your car and drive down the highway, for instance, you don’t raise your right hand and swear to drive considerately, to give others space to stop, to go promptly when the light turns green, and to signal your turns; but you should hear the reactions from others if you fail to do so. They have a reasonable expectation that you will drive as if you have your life in your hands, and theirs, too.

Fatherhood is another example of an assumed promise. You never signed on the dotted line to become a father, you never stood up and recited vows; but the child and the mother of your child have some reasonable expectations of you. At the minimum, you owe child support, assistance in rearing, love and concern, and an assurance of safety.

In all those cases, you are held to a promise you never made because it is inherent in the role you took. Others have a reasonable expectation of you. What, then should you do in cases when the expectations of others are unreasonable?

Your husband expects you to drop everything, wait on him hand and foot, constantly be at his beck and call because that’s what his mother did for his father. You never promised to be that kind of wife. In this day and age, he shouldn’t expect that kind of wife. He shouldn’t be angry that you don’t have dinner on the table at exactly six o’clock when you don’t get home until 5:30, after a long day’s work. He shouldn’t be angry, but he is.

In this case, it was his mother who made the promise for you. It’s not fair; it won’t hold up as a contractual obligation in court; but his mother’s promise is something you’re going to have to contend with. You’re going to have to acknowledge that you broke the promise his mother made on your behalf, if you’re ever going to reconcile your differences.

You see, there are objective wrongs and subjective ones. The objective wrongs are those that everyone recognizes. Subjective wrongs rest in the feelings of the person who regards himself as the victim, as your husband does in this case. They look unreasonable, they sound whiney, you believe the supposed victim is just being a big baby, you could accuse him of playing the victim; but, to the person who has the expectations, they’re very real.

What should you do when there are unreasonable expectations? Do you have to apologize? Is this something for which you have to make amends?

In a just world, it would be his mother apologizing and making amends to you for setting you up to fail; but you can’t wait for justice if you want reconciliation. No, you’re not to blame for failing to meet unreasonable expectations, but you are responsible; responsible in the sense that you are able to respond.

What is the best response to an unreasonable expectation?


That’s it. You have to say no, and follow it up with actions, like you mean it. If you haven’t said no, or have said no ambiguously, then it’s reasonable to assume you have accepted the expectation. Maybe that’s what you have to apologize for: not saying no.

Why don’t people say no when they need to? It’s hard to say no. Saying no involves being honest and inviting conflict. It puts the relationship at risk. But not saying no is the same as making a promise you can’t keep.

So, if you have looked within and found a broken promise to add to the other wrongs you have committed, then you probably have found even more misdeeds: a failure to be honest and an avoidance of conflict.

The Effects of your Actions

Once you have written your statement of responsibility, you’re ready for the next step: imagining the effects of your actions.

Don’t get hung up on expecting hard evidence that one thing was caused by another. We have hard evidence for some effects, but not others. We have hard evidence that, if if a man punches a child in the eye, the child will have a black eye; but we don’t have hard evidence that the reason she failed in school that semester was because of it. There could have been a connection, but there’s no way to prove it.

You can’t prove it, nor do you have to. This is not a court of law. You’re not treating cancer or building a highway or filing taxes, activities that require a higher level of certainty. You’re using your imagination. Just to entertain the possibility that one thing may have been caused by another is sufficient.

It’s also not necessary to say that your action, whether it was violence or addiction, cheating or lying, nagging or criticizing, was the only ingredient that led to a particular reaction. No one is saying you are to blame for everything. There’s obviously lots of reasons why things happen. Generally it’s a confluence of factors. A child may fail a semester of school for reasons besides the fact that she was getting beat up at home. She could have had a bad teacher, disruptive classmates, or any one of a number of other factors. She probably had a lot to do with the failing grades.

So, if you are willing to entertain possibilities that the things you do matter, then consider the following questions with respect to the thing you did, whatever it was.

What physical changes did you see in the person you hurt? Where there bruises, contusions, broken bones. Did the person get sick? Was there an alteration in consciousness?

What emotions did you observe in the person after you hurt him? Anger, annoyance, contempt, disgust, irritation, embarrassment, fear, helplessness, powerlessness, worry, doubt, frustration, guilt, shame, despair, disappointment, hurt, or sadness? Was there a fight or flight response? Did he freeze?

Did the person develop a mental condition after the thing you did? Chronic anxiety, worry, panic attacks? Depression, despair, suicidality? Can she pay attention? Is memory impaired? Was there post traumatic stress? Nightmares, flashbacks, irritability? Did you start to see more bottles of pills? Did he go out and buy a gun? Did she start to hallucinate?

How did the person’s economic status change? Could he pay his bills after that thing you did? Were his savings towards retirement set back? Did he miss days of work? What was the dollar and cents cost to the person for the thing you did?

Did that thing cost the person any friends? Did family members shun him? Where there things she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone? Did you get between him and the people he loves?

Did the person start to drink harder than before? Did drugs come into her life? Did he seem to go through cigarettes faster, start guzzling coffee, eat herself out of house and home?

Was there a change in how he engaged in recreation? Did she abandon hobbies or quit going to the gym? Did he stop going to the movies? Did she sign up for classes in martial arts?

Did the thing you did cost the person his hearth and home? Is her room more of a mess? Has his house fallen into disrepair? Does she now spend more time cleaning than is humanly necessary?

How has this changed your person’s view of God? Has she lost faith? Is the thing you did an example of evil and suffering in the world for which God gets the blame? Does he believe God to be mean and vindictive because that’s how you treated the person? Has she stopped going to church? Has he ceased studies for his bar mitzvah? Or, alternately, has she become more rigidly religious, more fundamentalist, more extreme in her behavior and beliefs? Is he now a Jihadist?

Finally, how has this person’s relationship with you changed? Can she trust you now? Is he always critical? Is she forever rolling her eyes? Is she interested in sex? Does he want to cuddle? Are you getting your calls returned, your texts answered? Are you still getting invited to parties? Did she place an order of protection? Are you getting a divorce?

This is, by no means, a complete list of all the questions you could ask or all the effects people have when you do awful things to them; but if you answered those questions honestly and owned up to the influence you have on others, then you have come a long way in accepting responsibility for your actions.

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