Why do we feel so guilty all the time?
I feel guilty about everything. Already today I've felt guilty about having said the wrong thing to a friend. Then I felt guilty about avoiding that friend because of the wrong thing I'd said. Plus, I haven't called my mother yet today: guilty. And I really should have organised something special for my husband's birthday: guilty. I gave the wrong kind of food to my child: guilty. I've been cutting corners at work lately: guilty. I skipped breakfast: guilty. I snacked instead: double guilty. I'm taking up all this space in a world with not enough space in it: guilty, guilty, guilty. Nor am I feeling good about feeling bad. Not when sophisticated friends never fail to remind me how self involved, self agrandising, politically conservative and morally stunted the guilty are. Poor me. Guilty about guilty. Filial guilt, fraternal guilt, spousal guilt, maternal guilt, peer guilt, work guilt, middle-class guilt, white guilt, liberal guilt, historical guilt, Jewish guilt: I'm guilty of them all.
Thankfully, there are those who say they can save us from guilt. According to the popular motivational speaker Denise Duffield-Thomas, author of Get Rich, Lucky Bitch! Guilt is "one of the most common feelings women suffer". Guilty women, lured by guilt into obstructing their own paths to increased wealth, power, prestige and happiness, just can't seem to take advantage of their advantages.
"You might feel guilty," Duffield-Thomas writes, "for wanting more, or for spending money on yourself, or for taking time out of your busy family life to work on improving yourself. You might feel guilty that other people are poor, that your friend is jealous, that there are starving people in the world." Sure enough, I do feel guilty for those things. So, it is something of a relief to hear that I can be helped -- that I can be self-helped. But, for that to happen, what I must first understand is that a) I'm worth it, and b) none of these structures of global inequality, predicated on historical injustices, are my fault.
My guilt, in other words, is a sign not of my guilt but of my innocence - even my victimhood. It's only by forgiving myself for the wrongs for which I bear no direct responsibility that I can learn to release my "money blocks and live a first class life", according to Duffield Thomas.
Imagine that: a first-class life. This sort of advice, which frames guilt as our most fundamentally inhibiting emotion, takes insights from psychoanalytic and feminist thinking and transforms them into the language of business motivation. The promise is that our guilt can be expiated by making money.
It's an idea that might resonate especially in the German language, where guilt and debt are the same word, schuld. One thinks, for example, of Max Weber's thesis about how the "spirit of capitalism" conflates our worldly and heavenly riches, on the basis that what you earn in this world also serves as a measure of your spiritual virtue, since it depends on your capacity for hard work, discipline and self-denial.
But what Weber calls "salvation anxiety" within the Protestant work ethic has the opposite effect to the self-help manual's promise to liberate entrepreneurs from their guilt. For Weber, in fact, the capitalist pursuit of profit does not reduce one's guilt, but actively exacerbates it for, in an economy that admonishes stagnation, there can be no rest for the wicked.
So, the guilt that blocks and inhibits us also propels us to work, work, work, to become relentlessly productive in the hope that we might - by our good works - rid ourselves of guilt. Guilt thus renders us productive and unproductive, workaholic and workphobic a conflict that might explain the extreme and even violent lengths to which people sometimes will go, whether by scapegoating others or sacrificing themselves, to be rid of what many people consider the most unbearable emotion.