Untangled: The Layers of Guilt

by Maram Behairy

Guilt is difficult to feel. We want to be good and do good. When we miss the mark, it feels bad. When we hurt someone, it hurts us.

Yet, guilt is an important and healthy emotion. Guilt guides us to be better. Guilt realigns us with our values. It lets us know that something is off and we can do better. It protects us from messing up the things we care about.

Let’s look at some examples.

You had a dinner party and did not invite one of your friends. She found out and felt excluded. You feel guilty. Why? Because you hurt someone you care about. Because your actions do not match what you value—friendship, connection, community.

Your spouse was irritating you for some reason today. Eventually, you snapped and said something not nice. She walked away sad. You feel guilty. Why? Because you hurt someone you care about. Because your actions do not match what you value—family, kindness, love.

Your child was crying over a broken toy. You tried to console him. You offered to get a new one. Nothing worked. You were already late for a work meeting and your son is clinging to your feet screaming. You yell. Your son is silenced and walks away whimpering. You rush out to get to work, but you feel guilty. Why? Because you hurt someone you care about. Because your actions do not match what you value—family, kindness, love.

You get the idea. Guilt shows up when we mess up.

Guilt asks us to pause, reflect, and correct.

Sometimes, however, our response to guilt makes it worse. Sometimes, we don’t pause and reflect. We don’t allow ourselves to feel remorse.

Sometimes we defend ourselves. We build a fortress around ourselves. Explain all the ways we are good and right. Maybe point out the other person’s mistakes and flaws. Why? Because it’s hard to admit we messed up. Somewhere along the way, many of us get this crazy notion that we can’t mess up. That we have to be perfect. That if we mess up, we will perish. It’s not so much an intellectual understanding. It’s deep within and we act on it by defending ourselves instead of just apologizing.

Just apologize. Don’t mess up the good things in your life because you are scared of messing up. We all mess up. Actually, admitting that you messed up will make you more appealing to others. Our father Prophet Adam (AS) is our example. Allah SWT taught him the 3 steps of repentance (tauba)—feel remorse, apologize, and recommit.

Other times, we go the opposite extreme and exaggerate the guilt. We drown in the remorse. We keep reflecting and stop moving through the steps. We make an ocean of guilt and get lost in its many waves. We lose sight of land. We beat ourselves up over and over again. We swim endlessly in the misery of our horribleness.

We even start to feel guilty for things that are not in our control such as our emotions. Feel guilty for our anger towards our spouse even if we didn’t yell. Feel guilty about our irritation towards our parents’ request even if we did it with a smile. Feel guilty over our inability to buy our child a new backpack even when we work really hard.

This response to guilt is debilitating. It paralyzes us from living our lives. It leads to depression. This is no longer guilt. It is toxic shame.

While defensiveness to guilt destroys our relationships with others, exaggerating guilt destroys our relationship with ourselves.

So the next time you mess up, don’t build a fortress around yourself and don’t jump into the ocean either.

PAUSE. Notice the tinge of guilt in your body. Appreciate the beauty of it. Appreciate Allah’s SWT perfect design of us.

REFLECT. Ask yourself who you hurt. Ask yourself how you missed the mark. Did you actually miss the mark?

Then, CORRECT. Be kind to yourself if you are exaggerating guilt. Apologize if you hurt someone. Renew your commitment to your values.

And live your life!

About the Author:

Maram Behairy is a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction and heads the writers’ group of South Florida Muslim Federation

‘I like to understand the bigger picture, deeper reasons, and nuanced connections. I have always been more interested in the roots under the ground than the fruit above. I complicate and explore in order to find the simple, deep truths. I live those with conviction. My dream is to use my gift for words to inspire and guide others to live with purpose and greater ease. So as I experiment on myself, I will share what I learn along the way. My roles in life (by default my areas of exploration) include being a Muslim, woman, wife, mother, writer, and youth mentor.’  

Have a question for the author or want to reach her? Email her at maram@soflomuslims.com.

Sana Saif
Author: Sana Saif

Program Manager

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