Let's Speak about Guilt

© Jean Leblanc

© Jean Leblanc

There was one emotion that dominated my life for many years. As we grow up, we begin to experience life and form our picture of the world we live. We receive through interpersonal interaction, experiences firstly, with parents and the nuclear family (primary caregivers)school friends, extended family,  teachers. Moreover, as life progresses through friends, work, and media, society at large.

I always felt I had done something wrong and because of that I am not good at and not good enough. Now the first part of this statement was at times accurate, I had often misbehaved or done something that I felt terrible. In other situations, I hadn’t done anything wrong at all, but I was led to believe my thoughts and feelings were wrong and to be condemned. The second half of the statement, however, I now know, is completely irrational and illogical as we are all good enough. These thoughts and feelings were the hallmarks of a deep sense of Guilt I felt in the past and still at times do.

Guilt, defined as The fact, or feeling of having committed a specified or implied offence, crime or failed in an obligation. Guilt is also a cognitive and emotional state produced by thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self and could have done otherwise. Two fitting quotes for guilt are:

Guilt: punishing yourself before God doesn't.Alan CohenGuilt can stop us from taking good care of ourselves.Melody Beattie

Like the other emotions, I have looked at; there are different types of guilt, a few being:

Guilt for something you did. The most likely and common reason to feel guilty is that you did something wrong. E.g. telling a lie or stealing

Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to. You’re thinking about committing an act which is against your moral code or engages in the dishonest, deceitful, or illegal behaviour.

Guilt for something you think you did.  Much of the unhappiness we experience is due to our irrational thoughts about situations.

Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone. Guilt is also experienced with the passing of a loved one or when something terrible happens to a loved one, and we feel we should have done more to help.

Guilt that you’re doing better than someone else. The experience of survivor guilt is one recognised by professionals who work with combat veterans who outlive their fellow troops or survivors of a disaster in which others do not survive.

Now, I know I'm not the only one to have suffered from guilt in life, but the thing with guilt is that it is an unhealthy negative emotion that is usually accompanied by Depression and Anxiety and other negative consequences. The anxiety attached to guilt is typically a result of the individual thinking that they might or will repeat the behaviour or thought that triggered the feeling of guilt in the first place. These emotions, when left to stagnate over time, evolves into neurosis as a result of feelings of worthlessness and lack of confidence. In the neurotic stage the thoughts ‘ how did I do that ?’ and will I do that again? Become obsessive and compulsive which in turn intensified, evolving into psychosis.

I'm sure, like myself, no one likes to be controlled by unhealthy emotions, neurosis or psychosis, you would be happy to know that Guilt has a healthier alternative called Remorse. Whereas with Guilt, we assume we have committed a sin and take on more personal responsibility than the situation requires without thinking of the mitigating factors. We also tend to believe that retribution is definitely on its way. When remorseful we can consider the behaviour in context, and we can assume an appropriate level of personal responsibility considering the mitigating factors without thoughts of immediate retribution.

We feel more empowered to face up to the pain that comes with the realisation of wrongdoing, ask for forgiveness, understand the reasons for the wrongdoing and act on the understanding. With remorse, we can make appropriate amends, and not make excuses for our behaviour or get all defensive about it.

So if you find yourself feeling guilty about something you did, remember that you do not have to feel that way and that it does not help you or anyone else to feel that way. Instead, we can stop the psychologically damaging moralistic condemnation of ourselves and make the appropriate amends for our wrongdoings in a healthy Remorseful manner for our health and well-being.

Psychotherapeutic Counsellor, Coach & Mentor
Insightful Conversations Founder

Angela Trentin