The Guilt Spiral


The guilt spiral is a mystifying thing that occurs when bad things happen to people around me. I start to feel guilty that the bad things are happening to other people instead of me. And then I start to feel guilty about feeling guilty because bad things aren’t happening to me. At this moment there are quite a lot of bad things happening to people around me.

I think I feel this way because on some level I cannot let go of the idea of fairness and that people should get what they deserve. It’s part of the appeal of television; in most cases the bad guys get their comeuppance and the good guys live happily ever after (well, maybe not so much in modern television – I’m looking at you Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin). Occasionally the good guys will die young and blameless and their equally young and blameless peers will bear the exquisite suffering on their noble faces like the True Heroes that they are. But real life is not a carefully crafted drama where good and evil are balanced, and where some karmic justice is at work. It’s just a bunch of people, muddling along, doing the best we can, and stuff happens that’s mostly outside our control. And then we deal with it. But as someone who grew up with books and fairy tales, a strong sense of justice and a vivid imagination, I on some level refuse to accept this.

And on some level – sadly – I seem to think that I deserve bad things more than others do. Hence the guilt. I haven’t yet in my 35 years been able to exactly determine why I carry this guilt around. It’s not from being unusually lucky, so I feel as if it’s “my turn”. Compared to most of the people I know, I end up somewhere around or above average on the “bad things have happened” scale (don’t worry, I won’t detail my grievances). For the record I would say I’m around or above average on the “good things have happened” scale too.

Of course I was born in Western Europe and always had a roof over my head and food on the table so I also habitually feel guilty for not having been born in say a poor African country. But the long and the short of it is that this cosmic burden of guilt is not doing me or anybody else any good – so I’d like it to go away please.

Because I veer towards being overly analytical, I wrote myself a letter to try to convince myself to stop with this nonsense:

Dear Sarah,

Sometimes bad things happen to people around you. It doesn’t mean you caused it or that you should feel guilty because right now bad things aren’t happening to you.

Most of these bad things you cannot fix. Sure, you can be there and offer what support is possible, but you cannot make friends, family, or colleagues physically or mentally well. You are not a doctor or a psychiatrist. You are not omnipotent. You do not have magical powers. There’s no misplaced Hogwarts letter with your name on it.

My advice to you is this: be there when you can, in the way that you can, for the people you care about. Try to appreciate that you have your health, a happy relationship and that your life is not generally falling to pieces. This is a good thing. It is not something to feel guilty about. It doesn’t mean there’s some glitch in the matrix and actually these things should be happening to you, and because they’re not, it in some way becomes your fault that it’s happening to others. Good and bad things do not happen because you deserve them. They just happen. Your friends deserve to be happy, but so do you. Go. Be happy.



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