Accepting responsibility without guilt can be a grueling process. We learn that guilt comes with responsibility through various ideological constructs: In the justice system, guilty convicts are held responsible with a sentence; In the Christian religion, the crucifix represents the ever-responsible Jesus absolving all sin, and thus inducing a strange guilt in us sinners to do good in the world. Most times, they go hand in hand — guilt is an emotion that’s derived from a compromise in responsibility. I am responsible, so I should feel guilty; however, the ambiguous nature of guilt and responsibility becomes very explicit (read: very opaque) when human emotions get involved.
When human relations go wrong under your “control,” it’s difficult to separate the dragging feeling of guilt from what I am actually responsible for, let alone figuring out what exactly I am responsible for. Do I have a responsibility to validate your feelings? Make you feel justified in your emotions? Do I embrace the blame you are throwing on me? Though my answer depends on the severity of the case, the simple answer is yes to all of the above. But doing so requires a keen sense of ego. Not the “ego” that describes self-important pompous individuals with inflated confidence, but ego in terms of separating the inner self from the outer self. Internally asserting that line between guilt and responsibility while externally expressing responsibility and guilt in the form of empathy.
But all of this is easier said than done. Empathy has a powerful ability to strike hidden chords and induce dormant emotions. In the process of empathizing, I let the guilt and responsibility seep into my head. Even though I am consciously aware that I should not feel guilty, my subconscious insists that the guilt is well and alive and relevant. Multiple times, from multiple people, in multiple mediums, I hear: “You are not responsible.” I accept that affirmation in my head, but the nagging feeling of guilt never leaves me. “Why do you feel guilty?” I don’t know, I just… do. I feel like I should.
Since I don’t know what exactly is making me feel guilty, I start to spiral into my thoughts, delving into what I know makes me feel guilty. It’s almost as if I am making myself feel guilty for this moment because I feel obligated to feel bad. But I can take responsibility for people while not being responsible for their emotions. In fact, I should never feel fully responsible for another’s emotions and allow that to engulf me in a crippling guilt. Though intricately intertwined, responsibility and guilt are separate. I can take responsibility, but I am not responsible.