Over the years, the theme of guilt has come up in therapy sessions with such frequency, that you’d hope I’d be an expert on it by now…but I’m not! What we feel guilty about is so person-specific and will have a lot to do with our environment growing up as well as our personality traits.
As a kid, I can remember feeling ‘bad’ about things because I had broken one of my own or our family’s ‘rules’. Back then, these were things like lying or if I’d been mean to a friend. Feeling ‘bad’ was often accompanied by physical sensations, like butterfly stomach. On reflection, I guess the discomfort of these feelings might have helped me to be a bit kinder and not tell porkies?! Who knows!
The point is, this type of guilt was probably quite ‘healthy’, although it didn’t feel it at the time: I’m unkind to someone, I feel bad, I apologise, I try not to do it again. Social lesson learned.
Unhealthy guilt however, is a problem – that’s when you choose to feel bad about something when you haven’t actually done anything. I use the word choose because it is a choice. Perhaps it’s best to outline a few different types of scenario where you might be tempted to feel guilt:
Something you did – actions or words cause harm to someone else.
Something you didn’t do but wanted to – when you feel tempted to do something that goes against your moral code.
Something you think you did – this is where you ruminate on a scenario and think you might have upset, harmed or offended someone.
When you think you are doing better than other people – a sense that I don’t deserve what I have. ‘Survivor’s guilt’ is an example of this.
When you didn’t do anything or enough to help when you feel you should have done – pretty self explanatory.
There is a difference between feeling guilty (or bad) and BEING guilty. It’s important to really understand that a feeling is not a fact, it’s an opinion your mind is having at the time!
If you have actually caused harm to someone or something, then you have the choice to take responsibility for that action and make amends.
A healthy sense of remorse can lead us to try harder. Feeling guilty can push us to revise for exams or to look after ourselves a bit better with exercise/ healthier eating. Send a thank you card…because I’ll feel bad if I don’t. It doesn’t mean beating yourself up because you forget to do something or because your child is the only one in the class without a mobile phone. Sound familiar?!
Let’s face it, we would all rather experience good emotions than the negative. But that’s not possible all the time. Recognising that emotions change hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, is helpful.
Can guilt be down to an over-inflated sense of responsibility?
Over the past few years I have worked hard to reduce my sense of responsibility for sorting out other peoples’ problems. Sounding selfish? Not to me. I just don’t to choose to feel guilty when I haven’t actually done anything. This has taken some work – mainly CBT. Talking situations through and challenging your thoughts can help, and there are other widely used CBT techniques, like responsibility pies that help us see things more clearly.
If you are constantly feeling bad about things or guilty, chances are you could do with working through this with a therapist. Maybe your ‘rules’ need a little adjusting so you don’t feel like you are breaking them as often?
I will leave you with an anecdote.
Sophie (we all know this isn’t her real name!) missed out on work promotions and her social life because she had an unhealthy rule about always putting her family’s needs before her own. Sophie certainly didn’t always want to put them first and ended up understandably resentful – this wasn’t helping her or her family. Talking things through, Sophie realised that because of her personality (she came across as very easy going and amenable) and because of the environment she grew up in, she had some pretty rigid, self-imposed rules.
All was not lost because once she identified what was going on, Sophie was able to adjust her rules a bit. Knowing that it was OK to put her own needs first sometimes helped reduce the resentment and consequently she was far less stressed.
And if your mental health is affected by chronic guilt, or you feel overwhelmed by your feelings, please seek help. Therapy is available on the NHS or through a private therapist and there are plenty of free resources on my website.