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Guilt versus Guiltiness


I never thought of there being a difference between the words “guilt” and “guiltiness” until I read an article distinguishing the two which made a big impression on me. In it, psychotherapist Orna Guralnik explains: “Guilt entails feeling bad for having harmed another; guiltiness is the preoccupation with yourself—whether you are or aren’t guilty. This preoccupation is all about warding off shame, which blocks concern for others.” 

If I’m understanding Guralnik correctly (what reader can ever really know the mind of the writer?), guilt is your heartfelt pain for having harmed another, that is, you hurt because you hurt someone, as in “I feel your pain.” Guiltiness is getting hung up on having caused someone pain, which ends up being self-referential and self-serving. Whereas guilt is all about what the other person feels, guiltiness is about what you feel. 

An example of this distinction is former clients Kendra and Mikhail who had a stormy relationship for years. She was easily emotionally wounded and blew up at Mikhail for the slightest transgression. He, on the other hand, was honest about feeling hurt, then let the matter drop. Post-mortems in my office (with or without his presence) involved Kendra only alluding to his suffering with comments such as, “I’m such a bad person to make him feel so terrible” or “What must he think of my saying such awful things to him?” Get my drift: her comments about him were really bout her, aka guiltiness.

In a similar case, my client Kelby ran an auto dealership and occasionally had to let go employees for not doing their jobs. He dreaded firings or giving negative evaluations, even when they were well-deserved, because he saw his employees’ failures as a reflection on him. “I spent so much time training so and so,” he’d lament. “What did I do wrong? I guess I didn’t do enough.” You could see the guilt eating him alive, but he honestly seemed more concerned with his failure to keep staff than with their suffering at losing their jobs. 

I tried to explain to him that firings were not all that unusual in a mid-sized company like his: some people will come on board and do well and others won’t. He actually was a pretty decent manager, but he took every failure of personnel as proof of what he was lacking, even when something was entirely their fault. Employees’ failures were his failures and, absorbed in self-fault-finding, he had little empathy for them.

So, there you have it, what you want (guilt)—and don’t want (guiltiness)—to feel when you’ve hurt someone. The healthy response is to put aside your pain and help the person you hurt get over theirs. I know, it’s easier said than done.