Author: Bendik Sparre Hovet
We often feel bad when we don’t live up to our own standards. We told a secret we should have kept, or failed to exercise even though we promised ourselves we would. This feeling is called guilt. Having done something wrong, or not done something you know was right to do. Sometimes, we have a feeling of guilt without knowing what we are guilty of. Still, it is as strong, or stronger, than when we know what we did wrong. But as we do not find anything for which we are guilty, we keep living our lives. The feeling is ignored. And becomes just a small pebble in our shoe. However, it might be wise to listen to the nagging guilt. The guilt that we know stalks us but is impossible to place.
This may be existential guilt – or the call of the unlived life. Where we are guilty of not this or that, but of who we are. How we are living our life. It is what Per-Einar Binder (2022) calls the call of the unlived life. The feeling of not being who you can be. It is a feeling that is terrifying, but that also can serve as a compass to engage more authentically with life.
Existential guilt is the feeling of having to take responsibility for your own life. In contrast to shame, where we feel horrible as a whole person, and feel the need to hide from who we perceive ourselves to be, guilt is concentrated on an act we did wrong. And since we can act differently now and in the future, guilt is also a feeling of responsibility. It is a feeling that motivates us to live up to what we did. Or, when it comes to existential guilt, to live up to who we can be. In both Norwegian and German, guilt is called “skyld” and “schuld”, which means to owe something. Existential guilt is not just being guilty of a wrong, but it is to owe something to your ideal self. We owe something to who we can be. And when we can take responsibility for that we do owe something to ourselves, we can begin changing our course.
According to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, existential guilt is built into the very fabric of existence. To be capable of moral guilt, of having spilled a secret you promised a close friend to keep, we have to have a fundamental sense of accountability to our very existence. Heidegger writes that human beings are always in danger of falling into an automatic, unauthentic state of living which he calls das Man. Das Man is what you normally do without thinking of why. It is just following social convention and never actually waking up to the fact that only you are responsible for what you make of your life. But even more fundamentally, it is letting yourself borrow the very spectacles through which you view the world, and never bothering to check if you can see without spectacles. But you can, and you do not need to view the world as you were taught it should be. Or you can even become a spectacle maker yourself. Heidegger describes is as falling into das Man. Thus, existential guilt serves as a compass, a wake-up call, out of das Man.
The psychiatrists Rollo May and Irvin Yalom use the concept of existential guilt in a humanistic-existential psychotherapeutic context. Their goal is not to describe the fundamental necessities of being, as Heidegger, but to help patients live with their own guilt and themselves as people. For them, existential guilt is more about opening ourselves up to creative self-expression and growth and taking ownership of the potential in one’s life. For Heidegger, we are in contrast always bound by the circumstances of the life we are thrown into. For Heidegger, being authentic is thus accepting that one can never be fully self-realized. Binder argues that this means that for Heidegger existential guilt is a wake-up call for responsibility, while for May and Yalom it is for growth.
Neither Heidegger nor May and Yalom take the wake-up call of existential guilt as a call to break completely with all norms and traditions no matter what. May especially speaks of us owing others an attitude of humility and forgiveness. Furthermore, being nonconformist for the sake of being nonconformist can just as much hide an unwillingness to face your existential guilt and own up to das Man. One merely gets absorbed into a subculture, or rebellion for the sake of rebellion, like an angry teenager.
This leads us to how self-actualization as an ideal has become almost a requirement in Western culture. You are in several ways required to improve your habits, move closer to success, and always make the best use of your time. However, taking existential guilt seriously means more than following the norms of self-actualization. What we owe ourselves is not merely “becoming the best version of ourselves”. It is taking seriously the task of becoming our authentic selves. Which is not to reject society, but to find a way to live authentically with others.
The existential guilt may cause you to lose your footing and experience a crisis of identity. But taking existential ownership over who you are, has been, and will become, is bound to evoke anxiety at first if you take the responsibility seriously. Through a more positive lens, this anxiety can be framed as an existential growing pain of becoming yourself.
How to actually harness existential guilt to strive towards responsibility and growth? One path is to use the emotion of regret, which is deeply connected to guilt, and meditate on what you want to change in how you view life or act. Regret is the negative emotion that people are found to value the most (Saffrey et al., 2008). A specific regret can open up to where the broader, more difficult-to-place feeling of existential guilt should be directed. Another path is having to face, or meditating on, your own mortality. That you are going to die. Fully grasping the implications of death in all its terrifying totality can indeed wake us up from das Man.
Existential guilt can thus open the doors of perception to living an authentic life. So rather than avoid the nagging feeling that there is something off about what you do every day, about how you conduct yourself, about who you have let yourself become – listen to it. Use it as a guide to taking responsibility for yourself. Not for alienating yourself from society, but letting more of your authentic self spill out into the world, and more of the good in the world and others spill into you. A self that lets meaning-making making and wholeness matter more than mere perfection for the sake of perfection.
Binder P. E. (2022). The call of the unlived life: On the psychology of existential guilt. Frontiers in psychology, 13, 991325. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.991325
Saffrey, C., Summerville, A., & Roese, N. J. (2008). Praise for regret: People value regret above other negative emotions. Motivation and Emotion, 32(1), 46–54. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-008-9082-4