This is the last in a seven-part series of articles on dealing with guilt. Please read the first six before reading this one. Written by a psychologist.
There are some who will not abandon religion in their quest for a guilt-free existence. Unfortunately, religious people often suffer the greatest guilt.
“I’m an Irish Catholic and I have a long iceberg of guilt.”--Edna O’Brien
For you, the last option is to repent. Although guilt is not seen as a very positive emotion, repentance is seen as a very important factor to improve our ways of thinking and behaving. In this light, the positive/transforming aspect of guilt can be that we admit our mistakes, ponder over them and motivate ourselves to not repeat negative actions. If you are Christian, this means relief from sin and acceptance into Heaven. That is REALLY BIG relief. Freudians would say repentance is the ultimate experience of reducing superego pressure. I’d say, if this is the only way you can experience relief from the pressure of guilt and/or shame, go for it. While it binds you to the mechanism of self-denigration, it also gives you a way out--better that than being guilty, suffering and having no escape.
Because Christians do not have a monopoly on guilt, neither do they have exclusive rights to repentance. Here’s an affirmation from a traditional repentance verse from Buddhism:
“For all the evil deeds I have done in the past, created by my body, speech and mind, from beginningless greed, hatred and delusion, I now know shame and repent them all.”--Unknown
In the “East," the above is perhaps the simplest but most widely practiced verse of repentance. The practice of Buddhist repentance is not so much the asking for divine forgiveness; rather, the clear recognition of our unskillful actions done intentionally or unmindfully through our body, speech and mind, which are the results of our lack of compassion and wisdom, originating from our attachment, aversion and delusion. After recognizing our misgivings, we make resolutions to be as mindful as we can, to never repeat them under any circumstances. In this sense, Buddhist repentance is about forgiving oneself through expressing regret and turning over a new leaf, absolving oneself of unhealthy guilt while renewing determination to further avoid evil, do good and purify the mind with greater diligence.