Keeping It In The Healthy Range
Rabbi Dovid Hochberg
Q. How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?
A. None, "I'll just sit here in the dark."
What is it about Jews and guilt? We've all experienced that heavy,
depressing feeling of guilt. What is the Jewish perspective on guilt? Is
guilt good or bad for you? Is it possible to feel too much guilt? How can
you differentiate between the positive feeling of remorse (Teshuva) and
incapacitating, negative guilt?
I believe the best way to answer these questions is to understand the
function of guilt. Guilt is a very powerful and healthy emotion that keeps
us honest with ourselves. It is our safeguard for inappropriate behavior.
It is very difficult to do the wrong thing when we feel guilty.
Guilt is the door to Teshuva (repentance). You can't feel sorry for doing
something if you don't feel badly about doing it. You can't be expected to
do Teshuva for a sin you don't believe is wrong. Guilt opens our eyes to
the truth about our inappropriate actions and behavior and makes us feel
badly about them. It makes us aware that we have hurt others by our
actions. Guilt motivates us to change.
Now here's where it gets tricky... When does guilt switch from being a
healthy, positive emotion into a negative, oppressive feeling that
incapacitates you and puts you into "shutdown" mode?
We say in the evening prayers, "...Remove Satan from before us and from
behind us..." The meaning of removing Satan from before us is pretty clear.
We are asking Hashem to prevent us from sinning. But what is the meaning of
removing him from behind us? Once we have sinned, what more does Satan want
The answer is very insightful. Satan's approach in convincing us to do the
wrong thing usually goes something like this: "It's not such a big deal.
It's only slightly wrong. Just do it one time. One time won't really
matter." Yet, as soon as we give in and do the wrong thing, Satan
gears and tries to show us the enormous, negative consequences of our
actions. "You did what?? How can you ever relate to Hashem again? Do you
have any idea how low you have just fallen? Don't even try to continue
doing anything positive anymore. It won't help. You might as well give up."
After we have done the wrong thing, Satan still isn't finished with us. He
desperately tries to make us feel depressed so we will continue with our
negative behaviors. It is this strong, incapacitating guilt that we are
asking Hashem to remove when we say, "...Remove Satan from behind us..."
So...back to our question. Now that we know guilt can be harmful as well as
helpful, how can we differentiate between healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt?
Here is a simple test, based on the above explanation of prayer. Ask
yourself the following question: I did the wrong thing, I feel bad, I am
sorry I did it...now what? Is this feeling of guilt motivating me in a
positive or negative way? Am I getting too depressed to continue doing the
right thing (I am in "shutdown" mode) or am I determined to succeed the
next time? The answer will help you decide what kind of guilt you are
feeling. Keep in mind, if the guilt is unhealthy guilt, DON'T LISTEN TO IT.
Fight it. Pull yourself out of the slump and do the right thing. You will
see an immediate change in the way you feel.
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