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Cure for Feeling Real Guilt

Harrison Ford is a real jerk in the movie "Regarding Henry." He plays a high-powered, arrogant and dishonest New York attorney who treats people very poorly, including his only child. He treats her harshly one morning and only reluctantly apologizes to her late that night because his pleading wife—not his conscience—tells him to.

But like many people, he offers a fake apology that does not relieve the real guilt for his wrongdoing. Instead, crafty man that he is, he uses the opportunity to restate his grievance against his daughter, who is left feeling even worse than before.

Playing Word Games

This prideful man just doesn't want to come clean and admit he made a mistake. So he plays word games, the most common reason why we are stuck with feelings of real guilt.

Here are just a few of the spin-zone word games that we prideful humans have come up with to avoid providing a real apology and in doing so alleviate real guilt and provide real restoration:

  • "I'm sorry for whatever I did."
  • "Mistakes were made."
  • "If I upset you, I am sorry."

None restore dignity, which I believe is a human need like love, to the offended person.

Four Parts of Real Apology

There are four parts to a real apology that recognizes guilt 1. Acknowledging the offence 2. Offering an explanation 3. Expressing remorse 4. Offering reparation. When apologies fail, at least one of these parts is missing. The most common failing is not acknowledging the offense, and as you can see, this is usually done through some very tricky word play. Our real guilt remains and worse, it festers just like the broken relationship.

In order to rid ourselves of real guilt, most of us will need to clean up after past sins, mistakes and transgressions. This usually includes a real apology and, in order to create one, we need self-awareness, humility and courage.

One direct way to bolster self-awareness is to ask ourselves, "If someone did that to me, would I want an apology?" This can cut through confusion like a knife.

Humility in this case should lead to remorse for our behavior, but it doesn't mean that we have to strip ourselves of self-worth and dignity. Healthy people do not require the person who offended them to behave like a puddle of self-hating and worthless mud. What healthy people want is the four components of an apology listed earlier.

Courage to Do Right Thing

Many of us think that being courageous means doing the right thing without feeling fear. So when we feel our heart beating, we conclude that we just don't have the courage to do the right thing. In reality, many people believe that courage is not possible without feeling fear.

We sometimes fear apologizing because we have no assurance that our apology will be accepted. We fear feeling foolish and being exposed, that it will be thrown back in our face—maybe even in public. We don't want to undergo this horrible feeling of shame. We often mistake guilt, the private feeling when we know we've done wrong, with shame, which is the feeling we receive when our wrong has been made public. Shame, a state of disgrace or dishonor, often leaves us feeling powerless, worthless and exposed, and is often connected with rage. Remarkably, shame tends to reduce our ability to take responsibility for our own actions, as guilt increases this capacity. Shame tends to be graceless, as healthy guilt includes an element of grace and forgiveness.

While guilt or godly sorrow has a useful and even protective component, shame is rarely productive. For example, one researcher questioned 550 fifth-graders and their parents and then followed up with them when the children were 18. The children who were most prone toward feelings of shame were more likely to drink at a younger age and were less likely to apply to college. Those more prone to feeling guilt were exactly opposite: They were less likely to try drugs and alcohol, less likely to become criminals, and less likely to commit suicide.

Shame-Prone vs. Guilt Prone

The same researcher questioned 500 inmates in a detention center near Washington, D.C. and discovered that shame-prone inmates tend to deny their responsibility for their crimes, and their shame doesn't deter them from acting aggressively. But guilt-prone inmates tend to accept responsibility for their crimes and show much less aggression.

One way to overcome this fear of apology-rejection is to provide it in writing. This way you can take your time, and you won't get as flustered as you might face to face. You can craft your apology following the four rules above. Whether you apologize in person or in writing, it's usually best to keep it short. Drawn-out explanations carry the possibility of appearing that you are trying somehow to justify your behavior when you're not.

Also, keep in mind that whether or not your apology is accepted is not your concern. Your responsibility is to do your part.

Bully Apologizes

After a man who read a book I wrote that included how damaging adolescent bullying can be, and through doing so became a Christian, bolstered his courage and contacted four boys who he bullied in high school in order to apologize and in the process relieve himself of real guilt which he carried for decades.

"Three of them told me to go to h___l," he told me during one of my men's conferences.

"And the fourth one?" I asked.

"He accepted my apology and we were able to talk for a long time about how hard high school was, and how we wish we could both do those years over."

Real guilt was released and restoration blesses both of these men today.

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Copyright 2008 Paul Coughlin. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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