Guilt is a powerful emotion.
It is defined by the Cambridge dictionary¹ as ”a feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have because you have done something wrong, such as causing harm to another person”.
It is an extremely common feeling with the primary function of signaling to us that we have done something or are about to do something that violates our personal beliefs or standards. We respond to this by making amends and the feeling usually dissipates quickly after.
What is unhealthy guilt?
Some people carry guilt with them for long periods of time – even years. It eventually poisons their whole system. It corrodes self-esteem, it corrupts relationships, it causes a person to self-destruct. It damages relationships in families, social circles, and whole communities by causing tension and allegiances between people. Guilt causes anxiety and depression. It is especially difficult for people who have rumination tendencies and who struggle to let things go.
- I had an abortion – I can’t forgive myself.
- I am the only one that survived the accident.
- I am gay and I feel so guilty – I am the only son.
- I caused my parent’s divorce.
- I failed my kids because I got divorced.
- I can’t provide for all my children’s needs
- I have failed at so many things – my parents hate me.
Guy Winch ² identifies 3 primary forms of guilt in his book, ”Emotional First Aid”
- Unresolved guilt – originates from our lack of skill to offer effective apologies.
- Survivor guilt – originates from incidents where we survived; others not; often without any wrongdoing on our part and frequently has a PTSD component to it.
- Separation guilt – originates from moving ahead in life while leaving others behind. We feel bad because we are better off than family members. Also called disloyalty guilt.
In her book, ”Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes”, Therese Borchard ³ describes feeling guilt as follows:
“There is a voice that says I’m doing something terribly wrong and that I’m a horrible person.”
Questions we can help with:
- Where does my guilt come from?
- How can I accept things that can’t be changed?
- How can I learn to effectively apologize?
- How can I make amendments?
- How can I forgive myself?
- How can I get back control of my life?
“There are two kinds of guilt: the kind that drowns you until you’re useless, and the kind that fires your soul to purpose.” Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes
How to avoid feeling guilty
- Accept that you are not perfect – no one is and you don’t have to be either.
- Learn to say NO. It is OK. You don’t have to over-compromise or over-commit and then feel guilty because you couldn’t keep to your promises.
- Avoid self-blame – be selective about what you accept responsibility for. Is it in your control or not?
- Avoid people who blame, criticize and judge. They will find ways to lay the blame on you, even with no wrongdoing on your part. This occurs often in toxic families.
- Set realistic goals and expectations for yourself. Unrealistic goals will cause feelings of guilt and not being in control.
- Do not dictate to others how they should live their lives. Mind your own business. Trying to run other people’s lives creates tension and conflict. Ultimately you only have influence over what you do.
- Choose the time well when you make life-altering decisions. Never make them when you feel guilty.
- It is a bad idea to use guilt to motivate or punish yourself.
- Do not overthink stuff. Rumination brings no new understanding – instead, it deepens emotional distress and causes depression.
¹ Cambridge Dictionary
² Emotional First Aid. Guy Winch. 2013.
³ ”Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes”, Therese Borchard
”An Ember in the Ashes”, Sabaa Tahir