Guilt is one of several basic emotions (like anger, shame, sadness, love etc.) that all of us are wired to experience because it serves an important function. Typically, we would experience guilt in the following situations:
- Doing or thinking something you believe is wrong or that violates your personal values.
- Not doing something that you said you would do.
- Committing a transgression against another person or something you value.
- Causing harm/damage to another person, object or yourself
- Being reminded of something wrong you did in the past.
The function of guilt is to help us recognise we have done something wrong and motivate us to take action to repair the damage. We experience an appropriate level of guilt when:
- We can realistically evaluate our actions.
- We can distinguish a bad action from labelling ourselves as a “bad person”.
- The duration and intensity of our guilt fit the facts of the situation.
- We are prompted to make genuine reparations for the situation rather than punish ourselves.
5 Questions to ask ourselves to determine if our guilt is appropriate
- Did I consciously and purposefully do something bad or hurtful that I shouldn’t have?
- Is the intensity and duration of my guilt appropriate to what I actually did?
- Am I labelling myself as a “bad person” for this action?
- Am I feeling realistic remorse that results from an empathic awareness of the negative impact of my action?
- Am I just punishing myself in a destructive manner for my actions or am I thinking of a strategy for change and growth from this?
Guilt is mostly unhelpful and damaging to us
Guilt makes us feel like a bad person. Most often people will wrongly conclude that if they have done something they perceive as “bad behavior” this shows that they are also a “bad person”, selfish, inconsiderate, etc. It is precisely this concept of “badness” that is at the core of inappropriate guilt and does the most damage to us.
How to overcome inappropriate guilt
Remind yourself that you can’t please everyone. When you constantly try to please others you can easily fall into the trap of feeling guilty every time you want to say “No”. In order to manage the discomfort of your guilt you may choose to give in to requests that you end up regretting afterwards.
Don’t take over responsibility for how others feel. One of my younger female clients had a domineering mother that always thought she knew best what was good for her daughter. Eventually, my client found the strength to stand up to her mother and openly refuse to enroll in a course her mother was suggesting. Consequently, the mother became very upset by this display of independence and accused my client of being rude and unappreciative. Unsurprisingly, the young woman felt guilty and responsible for upsetting her mother, but in counselling we were able to discus it as an example of inappropriate guilt. Ultimately, it was the responsibility of her mother, not my client, to deal with the (misplaced) sense of rejection and letdown due to misinterpreting her daughter’s behaviour. All my client had done was be assertive and stand up for herself – hardly an immoral action aimed at hurting another!
Examine your thinking for common misinterpretations. Common ones include magnifying things out of proportion, labelling yourself as ’bad”, or personalisation – inappropriately assuming personal responsibility for an event that was out of your control.
Examine realistically the facts of the situation. Changing your beliefs and assumptions to fit the facts will help you change your emotional reaction to situations. For example, if you are feeling crippling guilt because you asked a friend to help you with an assignment during a busy study time, it is hardly the crime you are making it out to be.
Let go of “should” statements. Irrational “should” statements imply that you are expected to always be perfect, all-knowing, or all-powerful. Ask yourself “Who says I should? Where is it written that I should”. Alternatively, you can try replacing should with “It would be nice if” or “I wish I could”.
Stop focusing on beating yourself up and do something to fix it! This is an obvious one, but we can easily get caught up in punishing ourselves and beating ourselves with negative labels, all the while not making any attempts to change or improve the situation. If indeed harm was done, try to repair it by making amends for the wrongdoing, fixing the damage, or changing your behaviour in the future.