Guilt can be pretty nasty. It’s one of the nastier things in the feelings department, in fact. Here’s the thing about guilt – there’s legitimate guilt and illegitimate guilt. Legitimate guilt basically means that you screwed up and you have to accept it and deal with the consequences. You have to deal with the situation. The situation can be huge, too.

One young mother left a burner on the stove and caused a fire, killing her infant child. I’ve left a burner on the stove before and no child was killed, no house burned down. Many people have left a burner on. This is nothing more than an accident. This mother was torn to pieces, and she beat herself up badly for leaving that burner on. This is legitimate guilt, because she did it. It was still an accident, though – that’s a fact. So it really doesn’t make sense to beat herself up. What’s done is done. This sounds cruel and harsh, but it’s true – the baby will not come back to life (unless, of course, you believe in reincarnation, in which case it’ll be in a different body). The mother will have her hands full processing this incredibly powerful event, but she can do it in time and with help if necessary.

Illegitimate guilt, on the other hand, means that you’re innocent – you really didn’t do anything wrong. A client was vacationing on an island that only had a flight out every other day. He heard that a loved one had fallen ill and took the next flight home. He had to wait a day, though, because of the sparse flight schedule. When he got home, the loved one had died. The man felt very guilty. The thought he had was, “I should’ve gotten there sooner.” I asked if he had taken the first available flight, and he replied that he had. So without a pilot’s license and a plane, none of which he had, he literally could not have gotten home any earlier. He did his absolute best. So for him to believe the thought “I should’ve gotten there sooner” is like him believing the thought “1 + 1 = 3.” Neither is true; both have to be thrown out with the trash. This is illegitimate guilt.

One thing to note is that that man’s false thought regarding getting home sooner was born out of love. He loved his relative so much that he desperately wanted to get home. Still, he has to admit that he did his best. He aced the test. He was on the next flight home. The fact that it was too late was not in his control. So beating himself up about this particular thing is not okay. It makes no sense. It’s a pattern, and patterns can be changed.