Guilt and empathy are not two things that you would normally think would go together. But I’ve been thinking lately of their connection on two different levels.
The first is that empathetic people generally are people that also feel guilt. The more empathy someone is capable of, the more guilt they are capable of. I’m not saying that guilt causes empathy (is it really empathy then?), but I do think it’s worth noting that these two traits exist commonly in the same people at similar levels.
The second is that when empathy is directed towards you, the risk is there for you to feel guilty. As if you did something wrong and that’s why you are receiving people’s pity. People don’t want other people’s charity or pity, and empathy is easily misinterpreted and received as that – or it is actually pity masked in empathetic language.
Third, guilt is something that people that lack empathy use to connect with people. It’s horribly backwards, but it’s very common. If you are unable to be empathetic, you use guilt to try and help the other person see something that they don’t. ‘You should feel this way,’ I think is an attempt to have someone feel what you feel. It’s like trying to force empathy the other way.
The connection between guilt and empathy I think lies in their similar ways of connecting people. Empathy is connection. It’s about sharing. Empathy is the absorption and acceptance of the experiences of people around you. Guilt is not so obvious of one, but it is also connection. Guilt is expectation. It’s something we feel because of disappointing someone, or God, or ourselves. It’s also something we aim or dump on others so that they experience what we experience. In contrast to empathy, guilt is a forced connection from the other side. I think the underlying drive of connection is the same, but empathy is the desire to share it, guilt is the desire to pin it on the other and blame or to internalize it and keep it to ourselves.
When we long for connection, we seem to have two choices. We can either empathize with the person we seek to connect with, or we can guilt trip them. Empathy says to someone that you see them, you understand them, and you are listening and able to attempt to connect with them at their level. Guilt says that you have something you need to say and you need this person to hear you and feel your pain with you. Guilt is a demand without any sacrifice of yourself. Empathy is a gift that more often than not results in the connection that we are looking for.