I’ve noticed that there are two types of guilt, useful guilt and selfish guilt.
Useful guilt leads me to change my behavior so that I no longer do the guilt-inducing action because I’ve decided it’s wrong.
Selfish guilt contains all the pain of guilt, and yet, is a selfish indulgence. We feel the pain of guilt to make ourselves feel better. So it is masochistic.
How does it work? If I violate one of my moral judgments – such as, that I should devote myself to the welfare of others, or not eat meat from animals that were mistreated – I’ve done something wrong. But if I don’t want to stop the action I can restore my psychic equilibrium by punishing myself with guilt for my moral infraction. I do a bad thing, punish myself and then feel that the perpetrator has been punished and my moral world is set aright. I feel as if justice has been done or the perpetrator has been punished. I am my own police, judge, prosecutor and prison. Since I have no priest I play that role for myself and gain absolution by causing myself suffering for my transgression. The painful guilt is simultaneously a pleasure since by suffering its condemnation – paying my debt to society – I can continue breaking that moral rule in the future.