Here's everything you need to know to overcome feelings of guilt

We take a look at how to overcome feelings of guilt

Guilt is a burdensome emotion. It can weigh you down with self-recrimination, damage your sense of self, erode your relationships, trigger anxiety or resentment and make you self-punish.

It is, according to cognitive theorists, a result of thoughts around your actual or perceived poor behaviour, behaviour that you believe has caused harm, malicious or unintended, to someone else and even to yourself. It is generated by self-recriminations around what you might have done — or should have done. It is often triggered by real events but can also be misplaced.

Guilty purpose

Like many emotions, guilt has its evolutionary role. As an emotion its primary goal is to teach us about the social and cultural norms of our group. It is essentially a warning that you have done something that has breached some social code. It gives you a chance to correct whatever you have done, to learn from it and move on, wiser and more aware.

Feeling guilt is common. Studies estimate that we experience mild guilt for about two hours each day, moderate guilt about five hours a week and severe guilt for around three-and-a-half hours a month. It can exist around the same event for years and even decades.

While guilt is critical for self-management and self-regulation — warning you when you have done or are about to do something that violates your personal or community standards — when you don’t learn to manage guilt and to deal with it effectively it can become problematic.

Problematic guilt

Research had found that guilt can be particularly difficult for certain personality types, making those individuals even more prone to experiencing and holding onto it or not addressing it at all.

For example, those who are quite intuitive are inclined to feel guilt more easily and over the smallest things. They tend to internalise their feelings while trying to make amends.

As an emotion, guilt’s primary goal is to teach us about the social and cultural norms of our group.

The perfectionists among us, on the other hand, will often feel guilt — not only about slights they may have committed against others but in the sense of not living up to their own expectations as well. Idealists meanwhile can struggle with guilt because they are driven to strive constantly to make things right, which means they can also take responsibility for things that aren’t actually their fault.

For others, though, guilt is problematic in another way. For those who are a little detached from their emotions, taking responsibility for doing wrong can be difficult and wrongs are sometimes ignored or diminished so that apologies are deemed to be unnecessary. For others still, guilt can be too confronting and they may choose instead to deny culpability and even resort to victim blaming to soothe their conscious.

If we are defensive, have low self-esteem or are a bit narcissistic, guilt — rather than trigger sorrow or regret— can generate feelings of anger, contempt and aggression.

Inappropriate guilt

While personality plays a part in your susceptibility to feeling guilt, so do external expectations and norms. When these external forces are applied you can sometimes experience inappropriate guilt — that is, guilt about things you should not actually feel guilty about.

Stereotypes, idealised views and the expectations of others can all trigger misplaced or unnecessary guilt, most often around issues such as parenting or our willingness to always prioritise the satisfaction of the needs and wants of others over the pursuit our own needs and wants.

When we feel pressure from others to do things differently, to be different, to want different things, we can feel a sense of guilt even when those pressures run contrary to what we know is best for us and even to our values and beliefs.

Studies estimate that we experience mild guilt for about two hours each day, moderate guilt about five hours a week and severe guilt for around three and half hours a month.

Other types of misplaced guilt include survivor guilt (when you’ve survived a critical event in which others have perished), separation guilt (often experienced by parents, especially mothers), disloyalty guilt (when pursuing our own goals and dreams means breaking away from friends or family) and success guilt (when we are doing better than significant others and feel bad for doing so). There are also, of course, the guilt trips others can and do inflict upon us in an attempt to control or manipulate us into doing what they want us to do.

These kinds of pressures and experiences and the sense of guilt they can cause can have significant consequences for your self-esteem and your sense of self, compromising your ability to live authentically. They can also impact your health and wellbeing in both a physiological and psychological sense.

Guilt effects

Guilt has real and tangible impacts on our psychological and emotional health when we’re unable to manage it effectively. Feeling guilty usually creates a level of stress that releases stress hormones like cortisol into our bodies, which in turn can trigger headaches and backaches, shoulder tension and the like. It can also contribute to cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal disorders and have a negative impact on the immune system over time.

In terms of your psychological wellbeing, guilt is a significant contributor to both depression and anxiety and can have major and long-lasting impacts on your ability to make and maintain relationships with others. Excessive guilt can also lead to consequences such as self-punishment in the form of substance abuse, self-harm and even suicide.

So how do you manage guilt? What does that require?

Managing guilt

Essentially, guilt has two parts: trying to make amends for the wrong that was done and forgiveness of self.

The first part of this equation is about making apologies and making amends. It is also about seeking genuine forgiveness for the wrong you have committed. Apologies can be hard to give and give well, especially if you still attempt to protect your ego with excuses or caveats for what has occurred. Whether you intended the wrong or not, the harm done can’t be devalued and diminished if you want to truly make amends for what has happened. As such, taking time to craft an apology can make a difference to the outcome, especially when you make a point of acknowledging the impact that your actions or words have had on the person involved.

While a genuine apology is always the best way to approach someone you’ve hurt, it cannot guarantee forgiveness; nor can it guarantee a relationship can continue the way it has, if at all. When we don’t get the outcome we wish for — forgiveness from the person we wronged and/or the chance to make amends — guilt can persist and become even more pervasive.

It is here that the second part of managing guilt comes to the fore. With or without the forgiveness of others we must be able to forgive ourselves if we want to truly move on from past mistakes instead of carrying the discomfort with us.

Forgiving yourself requires honesty and self-acceptance. It is difficult to do and can sometimes to be viewed — inaccurately — as an attempt to excuse yourself from the mistakes you’ve made and the harm you’ve caused.

Yet it isn’t an act that condones or excuses what you have done. Instead, when you practise self-forgiveness properly you don’t diminish the wrong; you highlight it, examining the circumstances and your behaviour and learning from it. You take a full account of the events and full responsibility for your actions.

Stereotypes, idealised views and the expectations of others can all trigger misplaced or unnecessary guilt.

As such it is a process rather than a decision you simply make. You have to acknowledge that the guilt you’re feeling isn’t serving a productive purpose and that you will instead have to work your way through the emotional distress the events and their consequences have caused, making sure you do what you have to do to ensure you don’t do the same thing again. In extreme cases, seeking out the help of a professional can be the only way to move through your feelings of guilt to find self-forgiveness.

When you try to come to self-forgiveness, you not only accept that you have behaved badly but you have to fully and completely acknowledge the psychological and emotional impacts your behaviour has had on another person. If you successfully and honestly move through this process you can get to a point of self-forgiveness, acknowledging and accepting the mistake and making changes where appropriate to make sure it doesn’t happen again. In this way, guilt is a motivator for change and awareness moving forward.

Once you’ve apologised, when you’ve made the necessary changes to reduce the chance of making the same mistakes or repeating the same patterns again, you need to decide to let go of the past and move on.

Guilt becomes unhealthy when you’ve done all you can do to “fix” things yet you continue to ruminate and punish yourself for your indiscretion. Sometimes this guilt persists when you don’t get the outcome you wanted or expected from the person you needed to apologise to, but it can also occur when, even with an apology accepted, the relationship you had or your reputation has been irretrievably damaged by what has transpired.

Sometimes relationships are permanently lost, sometimes they just aren’t the same, sometimes they were never strong enough or significant enough in the first place to weather a betrayal or breach. In this case you need to accept you have done all you can and make peace with that loss.

When reputation is lost despite your best efforts, you need to bring courage to the fore and begin to repair the damage that has been done, remembering not to minimise your past behaviour but to demonstrate clearly the same will not happen again.

Guilt is not shame

When thinking about guilt it is important to acknowledge there is a significant difference between guilt and shame. While they may often come from the same place, guilt is about an act whereas shame is about the value of a person.

Feeling guilt can lead to change but feeling shame is rarely beneficial and it is where we can descend to when guilt is unmanaged. Indeed, once feelings of shame become involved you begin to judge not just your actions but your worth as well, potentially triggering self-loathing, low self-esteem and depression.

The problem with shame is that it is something you often conceal because it is a feeling so intrinsically linked to your sense of self. It has a devaluing quality that often leads you to hide or lash out or turn to self-destructive behaviours as a way to “forget” or mask these feelings, with shame being found to motivate behaviours including avoidance, defensiveness, and denial.

Dealing with shame then is about unhitching what you have done from who you are as a person, remembering that we all have moments where our actions are not ideal. It is also about becoming aware of the negative self-talk that ultimately fuels feelings of shame, bringing self-compassion to your practice and identifying where the shame has come from and working through it.

Managing guilt is an important skill that you need to bring to your daily practice to improve and protect the relationships you hold most dear and to ensure that you live a life that reflects your values and standards. It is also about accepting that none of us is perfect and that circumstances and your humanness will ensure that every now and then you do or say something you shouldn’t.

Accepting the role of guilt and its purpose can help you work through these feelings whenever they arise so that you keep yourself from becoming stuck in a mindset that will inevitably erode your confidence and the way you value yourself. Guilt begets change when you pay attention to its message and act upon it.

Nikki Davies

Nikki Davies

Nikki Davies is a freelance writer and teacher. She has a background in psychology and is currently working in education in the wellbeing sector.

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