The Weight of Guilt: Unpacking the Psychological, Moral, and Societal Forces Behind Our Need for Equal Suffering

The Weight of Guilt: Unpacking the Psychological, Moral, and Societal Forces Behind Our Need for Equal Suffering

Within the web of our human emotions, Guilt persists as a powerful force, urging us to reconcile with the consequences of our actions. Beyond our general understanding of the pressures of guilt, there exist unwitting effects of guilt that influence us—by definition, just outside of our knowledge. One area that guilt affects us in a less obvious way is an inherent need to reestablish harmony. It’s an interesting condition, the belief that when we’ve caused harm to another person, we must endure a similar measure of suffering ourselves. And this inherent pull to seek out equal suffering is a complex interplay of psychology, morality, and societal influences.

            Imagine this, you unintentionally hurt someone—whether emotionally or physically—the weight of your action begins to settle on your conscience like an overextended guest. Instead of simply acknowledging the mistake with whomever we hurt and seeking resolution, there’s an inexplicable urge to balance the scales, to feel a pain that we, sometimes arbitrarily, assign as equivalent to the pain we’ve inflicted. Because we maintain and develop subconscious moral compass throughout our lives. From an early age, we are instilled with a sense of right and wrong, and we are expected to recognize that our actions have consequences. When we deviate from the path of our developed morality and cause harm, Guilt presents as a mechanism to correct our behavior. Our internal compass is working to realign, and to ensure that we learn from our mistakes.

Our affinity toward equal suffering is deeply rooted in a physiological need for emotional equilibrium. An emotional equilibrium allows us to consciously acknowledge our emotions, as we experience them, with a healthy understanding, and without feeling the need to suppress them or to be overwhelmed by them [our emotions]. When we harm someone, the disturbance in the equilibrium of our relationships triggers emotional discomfort, an emotional discomfort that we may not be consciously aware of. In order to restore balance, we often feel compelled to experience a comparable level of suffering, because we believe that by undergoing this self-imposed penance, we might atone for whatever transgressions may be responsible for our imbalance and therefore cleanse our conscience.

            The societal aspect of this condition is intriguing, although if not handled appropriately can have lasting contentious effects on our perspectives and behaviors. Cultures around the world often emphasize the concept of retribution or karma—the idea that, “what goes around comes around.” This ingrained belief system may very well contribute to shaping our responses when we cause harm. We are conditioned by the notion that for every action, there must be a reaction, and when we harm another, we must bear the consequences that we deem proportionate to our actions. Furthermore, societal expectations and norms regarding accountability contribute to our desire for equal suffering. Apologizing and seeking forgiveness might be seen as lacking, or even as a sign of weakness; there exists an unspoken demand for a palpable display of remorse, often manifesting in our own suffering. The act of willingly subjecting ourselves to hardship becomes a symbol of our commitment to redemption and evidence of the sincerity of our remorse. Neurologically, experiencing guilt activates regions of the brain associated with empathy and moral reasoning. The discomfort that we feel is not just psychological; there’s a physiological response to breaking our own moral standards. Seeking equal suffering helps to restore the imbalance created between the body and the mind, as we can only find relief through a conscious and palpable manifestation of remorse.

However, while the tendency to seek equal suffering may have roots in our moral, psychological, and physiological constitution, it’s essential to recognize when this impulse might start to become counterproductive. There’s a fine line between genuine remorse and self-flagellation, and constantly subjecting ourselves to suffering will eventually hinder our ability to move forward and to make amends, also possibly leading to resenting one another for a friction in the opinion that amends might be owed or even if the person we might have harmed never actually expected atonement or forgiveness has already been offered.  

          In our humanity, we have layers and layers of un-, and subconscious: learned, relearned, actions, reactions, of overwhelming, shocking, frightening, and contrasting experiences, emotions, and injuries. Most of which we simply absorb into our personality and perspective of things, that seriously influences how we engage and interact with one another. And guilt can very easily and very quickly become an added layer of emotional upheaval. When we feel that we are, either constantly trying to make amends for perceived wrongs or while we feel as though we are making efforts to right certain wrongs those who we feel might have wronged us appear to make no effort at all to equal suffering, we feel gypped af—and eventually, resentment follows. This kind of resentment sits with us and leaves a harmful impression on our immediate responses and reactions to a thing. As humans, our primary reaction to specific incidents comes from a stockpile of not only our previous experiences but how we trained ourselves to react to those experiences, developing our habit of character. Some of us, when presented with something, will regard it with a generally favorable point of view while others will regard it with a generally contentious point of view. Resentment unwittingly shifts our perspectives from favorable or contentious if we’re not conscious about who we manage our guilt. And it's why empathy is so very important.

This peculiar phenomenon of seeking equal suffering when we’ve caused harm is a composite interplay of morality, psychology, and societal influences, and creates the unique opportunity for us to develop a strong moral character or to develop a weak and aggressive mentality. Stemming from our innate need for equilibrium, both in our internal world of emotions and external world of relationships. Understanding this phenomenon allows us to navigate the delicate balance between atonement, self-punishment, and resentment, fostering genuine growth and reconciliation. So, the next time you experience guilt of conscience, consider whether equal suffering is a productive step towards redemption or a dilemma that hinders your own ability to heal, and where empathy might fall in that sometimes-delicate balance.

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