Human emotions interpreted through the insidious filter of the ego can create a powerful misconception about ourselves and those around us. We have a powerful, built-in tendency to define ourselves by our prominent emotions (e.g., a person who is feeling sad thinks of him or herself as a “sad” person), and how we feel about someone else tends to automatically categorize them in our mind (e.g., that person made me angry, therefore he or she is a bad person). But these conclusions are illogical. Everyone feels every emotion at some time or another during his or her lifetime, and to say that the feelings define the person is to say that who we are changes moment-by-moment on a whim. In no circumstance is this tendency of ours more obvious (or more dangerous) than when we feel and misinterpret the natural emotion of remorse.
With the possible exception of sociopaths, all of us feel this emotion whether we are conscious of it or not. It arises when our actions, habits, patterns, and interactions are out of integrity with our inner values and beliefs. It is not our emotions that define us, but it is what we DO with those emotions – the power we give them to control our actions – that determines whether the way we are living our lives is in integrity with our inherent sense of morality. I’m not talking about a dogmatic set of rules or commandments here, by the way, I’m referring to the divine sense of morality with which we are all endowed, which primarily tells us to do our best not to do harm to ourselves or others.
When something we have done or are doing is causing emotional or physical pain to ourselves or someone else, our natural tendency is to feel remorse. This is perfectly understandable, and is actually a mechanism designed to help us evolve in our spiritual state by taking better and better care of ourselves and others. When we are out of alignment with that Purpose, remorse is the signpost that guides us to correcting our actions in order to save each other from further pain. Making a deliberate effort to make amends for harmful behavior in the past, and then consciously working on breaking habits of harmful behavior in the future, are a few of the ways in which we step closer towards inner peace and enlightenment.
The problem is that when we feel remorse but then use it to define ourselves, the end result is a belief that we are a bad person. This results in a transmutation of remorse into shame. And that shame can manifest consciously or subconsciously. We either sink into a morass of guilt for the way we have been living our lives, or we try to cover our shame with denial, justification or rationalization, and blame. Either way, by giving undue and unwanted defining power to the natural emotion of remorse, we compound our suffering, and that manifests in continuing harmful behavior. Which compounds shame, which perpetuates the downward spiral.
Patterns of destructiveness – dishonesty, casual indifference to the pain our actions are causing ourselves and others, rationalization of behaviors which we know are feeble attempts to fill a void in our self-esteem, and constant anger with others for judging us (which is almost always a symptom of self-judgment) – are the evidence that we are dealing in shame or blame instead of remorse. Remorse is there for a divine Purpose, and healing these cycles comes from a proper understanding of that Purpose.
There is a principal in the twelve-step program promoted by Alcoholics Anonymous which really captures spirit of what it means to be in integrity with our true selves. It is the ninth step, which is to make direct amends to anyone harmed through unconscious actions whenever doing so will not cause further harm. In other words, it is absolutely essential to our karmic and emotional well-being that we be willing to set aside blame and shame, and instead feel the real remorse that our shortcomings – and we ALL have them – have wrought in our lives. When we are in blame and shame, we react, jumping to self-righteousness, denial, anger, or self-loathing and depression. When we are in tune with the Purpose of remorse, we consciously act, doing our best to apologize, make amends, and change the cycles of behavior which have left in our path a wake of destruction.
Identifying the differences between genuine remorse and ego-induced shame and blame is tricky, and the ego will do its level best to try to keep you from growing. But swallowing pride and facing the Truth that remorse isn’t telling you you’re a bad person, it’s there to help you continue to evolve into a better one, is the first step towards breaking the habituated cycles of suffering in your life. Being willing to say you’re sorry, and then changing your behaviors one step at a time, is the key to liberation.