Maybe You’re Not Offended. Maybe You Just Feel Guilty

It’s so easy to be offended these days, you almost have to go out of your way not to be.

By Gwen Farrell4 min read
Pexels/Ron Lach

If you’re on social media, feeling offended can be accomplished on a daily basis, but the pearl-clutching mentality of today is just as applicable to real-world interactions as it is to online ones. It’s easier for us to be the victims of someone else’s thoughts or opinions than it is to simply ignore their comments and move on.

And now, we’re even getting paid for it. Ever since the platform X, formerly known as Twitter, introduced paying verified users a share of the site’s ad revenue, people are more motivated than ever to publish the most insane, asinine, or enraging things in order to artificially farm engagement with their accounts and make thousands of dollars a month in the process.

Even without the payout, though, most of us could still post our own thoughts and get pushback for it. Even if you were to say, “The sky is blue today,” you’re sure to get a total stranger in your replies, asking you to be more accommodating and cognizant of people who are colorblind.

But what if everything we’ve been taught about being offended is all a lie? What if maybe, just maybe, you’re not offended – you just feel guilty? Guilt, like any other uncomfortable emotion, is one we tend to shy away from because of how powerfully it can convict us. But what if instead of pushing it away, we embraced it?

Is It Guilt or Shame?

All of us get offended. Even those of us with the thickest skin are able to be ticked off by someone else’s actions. We’re all humans with flaws and, more importantly, with egos, meaning we’re all susceptible to taking something personally. We’re also able to keep a mental tally of offenses in our head, enabling us to hold grudges against the person who has caused us offense, whether intentionally or unintentionally. We have every right to be offended by someone else and to call them out publicly for it, or so we’re told.

Our ego is what’s under attack here. As strong as we are and as self-aware as we can be, egos can be fragile, and a comment or action we view as offensive, for whatever reason, can put a chink in our armor. This is often the case. But in constructing how we address being offended, we’re putting an ultimately unhelpful safeguard in place by always neglecting to mention guilt and shame.

Guilt and shame are two sides of the same coin, but they can look very different and manifest in distinct ways depending on the situation. Let’s use an example to illustrate both: You’re an alcoholic, and one night, you’re driving under the influence, and you unintentionally strike another vehicle and severely injure the driver in the other car. In the aftermath, you feel immense pain, disgust, regret, remorse, and humiliation. The shame within you tells you that you’re a terrible person. The guilt within you tells you that you’ve done a terrible thing. Guilt speaks to your responsibility, and shame speaks to how that responsibility impacts your perception of yourself as a person.

Doing bad things doesn’t necessarily make someone a bad person. If there’s a lack of guilt and shame on their part, that could be indicative of their true character. But hopefully, most of us look at our bad actions and recognize them for what they are. When we express remorse, regret, and honesty, we hold ourselves accountable. We feel guilt because we did something that in some way offends our ethics and our values, or that impacted or offended someone else. 

But when we feel offended, the initial action or comment resonated with something personal within us – such as something we’ve said or done, or a view we hold. Sometimes, we feel offended because we take another person’s perspective or comment too personally, to an irrational degree. Other times, we use feeling offended as a defense mechanism when we feel convicted. Instead of feeling guilty, we push accountability and honesty as far away from us as possible.

Feeling Offended As a Defense Tactic

It’s so much easier to feel offended than it is to feel guilty about something. This is further complicated because guilt is a complex experience. You might feel guilt because your actions directly impacted someone else (what’s known as altruistic guilt) or because your actions directly went against what you personally believe in as an individual (deontological guilt).

In feeling offended, we feel a sense of superiority and self-righteousness. The cause of our offense is wrong, uneducated, misinformed, or just a terrible person. But in being offended, we internalize a strong anger that’s not as productive as guilt.

Think of reading a tweet or a Facebook post. Your pulse quickens. Your blood begins to boil. If you were a Looney Tunes character, steam would be coming out of your ears. You’re offended by whatever this other perspective has to say, but more than that, you’re angry. So what do you do? You fire off a response, or you’re in a bad mood for the rest of the day. But your anger didn’t help anything. It didn’t cause this other person to change their mind, it didn’t help anyone around you or make you feel better about yourself. It just made you upset and a nasty person to be around. Your anger at being offended wasn’t productive.

Perhaps it sounds counterintuitive to say that our emotions should be productive in some way. But emotions are reactions to thoughts and catalysts to action. They are pieces of information that can be accurate or inaccurate, and thus need to be evaluated. When it comes down to a choice between something as divisive, poisonous, and harmful as anger and a productive sensation like guilt, the choice between which of the two is better for us is clear. 

Guilt Is Actually a Good Thing 

Being offended is a choice, but feeling guilty isn’t. If we haven’t in some way played a part, our mind, both conscious and subconscious, would feel no guilt at all, and our ego would be safe and protected. 

But guilt is also a gift, somewhat similar to the red pill and blue pill proposition from The Matrix. We can either accept our actions and responsibility, thereby increasing our honesty and self-awareness, or we can refuse to and remain in the dark about a key aspect of our character.

I’ll provide one such example from my own life. I was vocal on my X account a few months ago about my struggles with mental health and postpartum depression. A snarky user, who doesn’t follow me but must have seen my tweet, replied and said that my mental health issues were fake. Whether they actually believed this or just wanted to be unpleasant is not for me to know. But I instantly felt offended. How dare this person criticize my lived experience? 

While I recognize that their aim was most likely to get a response out of me, the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t logically explain why I was offended. Indeed, I was probably more guilty than offended – guilty that I left my postpartum depression to fester, guilty that I didn’t speak up about it sooner, and guilty that when I should’ve gotten help for it, I let it impact nearly every aspect of my life.

Being offended is easy. It’s a coping mechanism we put in place to prevent ourselves from being uncomfortable or from having to think about ways we’ve potentially let ourselves or others down. But guilt can be a gift because in acknowledging it, we refuse to let ourselves be delusional. More than that, we set ourselves free by staring it in the face rather than fearing the apparent power it has over us. Once we accept it, other people no longer have any say in our emotions or reactions, and that gives us back a power that being offended never will.

Closing Thoughts

Being resilient can be tough, and it isn’t an instinctual response most of us possess when living in the world we do today. But resilient people, we know, are happier in their lives and more often free from anger and irritability. 

When you feel offended, stop and consider if the root emotion you’re feeling may be guilt. If it is, confront your guilt head-on, as uncomfortable as it may be, then set it free through apologizing to others or yourself if necessary. You’ll become more self-aware, acquire more inner peace, and feel better in the process.

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