Guilt

Feelings of guilt can eat away at us, creating a negativity that is caustic.

Feelings of guilt can kick in for the smallest, most meaningless things, or for big actions and events.  They can be painful, even crippling.  They can undermine our confidence, and become a physical ache.   Yet they can be powerful catalysts for change.

Guilt is an emotional warning sign that most people learn through their normal childhood social development. Its purpose is to let us know when we’ve done something wrong, to help us develop a better sense of our behaviour and how it affects ourselves and others. It prompts us to re-examine our behavior so that we don’t end up making the same mistake twice.

With professional help it is possible to resist the most overpower guilty feelings, and accept them when they’re important.  Learn to let them go more easily when they’re not useful.

Guilt works best to help us grow and mature when our behavior has been offensive or hurtful to others or ourselves. If we feel guilty for saying something offensive to another person, or for focusing on our careers with an 80-hour work-week over our family, that’s a warning sign with a purpose: change your behavior or else lose your friends or family. We can still choose to ignore our guilt then, but then we do so at our own risk. This is known as “healthy” or “appropriate” guilt because it serves a purpose in trying to help redirect our moral or behavioral compass. 

If you’re feeling guilty for eating five chocolate bars in a row, that’s your brain’s way of trying to get the message to you about a behaviour you probably already recognize is a little extreme. Such behaviour may be self-destructive and ultimately harmful to your health and well-being. So the rational purpose of this guilt is simply to try and convince you to change this behaviour.

If your guilt is for a specific and rational purpose – e.g., it’s healthy guilt –  its good to take action to fix the problem behaviour. While many of us are gluttons for self-punishment, ongoing guilt weighs us down as we try and move forward in life. It’s easy enough to apologize to someone whom we’ve offended by a careless remark. It’s a little more challenging to not only recognize how established behaviours can be harmful to yourself and others.

Healthy guilt is telling us we need to do something different in order to repair relationships important to us (or our own self-esteem). (Unhealthy guilt’s purpose, on the other hand, is only to make us feel badly for little legitimate reason.) While sometimes we already know the lesson guilt is trying to teach us, it will return time and time again until we’ve actually learned the lesson fully. It can be frustrating, but it seems to be the way guilt works for most people. The sooner we “learn the lesson” – e.g., make amends, work to not engage in the same hurtful behavior in the future, etc. – the sooner the guilt will disappear. If successful, it will never return for that issue again.

If you did something wrong or hurtful, you will have to accept that you cannot change the past. But you can make amends for your behaviour, if and when it’s appropriate. Do so, apologize, or make-up for the inappropriate behavior in a timely manner, but then let it go. The more we focus on believing we need to do something more, the more it will continue to bother us and interfere with our relationships with others.

Guilt’s purpose isn’t to make us feel bad just for the sake of it. The feeling of guilt is trying to get our attention so that we can learn something from the experience. If we learn from our behavior, we’ll be less likely to do it again in the future. If I’ve accidentally said something insulting to another person, my guilt is telling me I should (a) apologize to the person and (b) think a little more before I open my mouth.

Nobody is perfect, even our friends or family members who appear to lead perfect, guilt-free lives. Striving for perfection in any part of our lives is a recipe for failure, since it can never be attained. 

We all make mistakes and many of us go down a path in our lives that can make us feel guilty later on when we finally realize our mistake. The key, however, is to realize the mistake and accept that you’re only human. Don’t engage in days, weeks or months of self-blame or battering your self-esteem because you should’ve known, should’ve acted differently, or should’ve been an ideal person. You’re not, and neither am I. That’s just life.

Guilt is one of those emotions that we feel is telling us something important. Be aware that not every emotion, and certainly not every guilty feeling, is a rational one that has a purpose. Focus on the guilt that causes loved ones or friends harm. And remember to be sceptical the next time you feel guilty – is it trying to teach you something rational and helpful about your behavior, or is it just an emotional, irrational response to a situation? The answer to that question will be your first step to helping you better cope with guilt in the future.

A few sessions with Annie will help you to see your guilt in perspective, and develop strategies to minimise it’s effects.

 

 

Its easy to be manipulated by guilt.  Sometimes it comes from inside us, sometimes from others, but it is something we need to attend to.  Ignoring it does not make it go away.