Guilt is a common feeling we all experience and this starts when we are quite young, some researchers have found it starting as young as 3. Guilt emerges a little later than other basic emotions such as joy, sadness, fear, and anger. Guilt emerges as children’s grasp of social norms develops. As adults we learn the feeling quite well. It guides us into making decisions that help each other. We don’t have it when we are thinking of ourselves first. Although, guilt has a way of resurfacing.
What is guilt?
Feeling regretful for a perceived offense, this can be real or imaginary. Guilt is a self-conscious emotion, involving reflection on oneself. There are many different ways people experience the feeling of guilt. It can be related to acts they have committed, acts they think they did, a failure to do something they should have done, or thoughts that they think are morally wrong. Some examples are Forgetting a friends birthday, thinking you said something insensitive, forgetting to pick something up for a grandparent, or putting yourself before another.
What to do with Guilt?
Separate Shame from Guilt.
Shame is guilt’s bigger uglier cousin that happens to be a bully. Anyone that has heard of Brenè Brown knows that shame is much different from guilt. It is vital to separate the two so you know how to better deal with it. Guilt is “I did something wrong. I made a mistake”. Shame is “I am wrong, I am a mistake, there is something wrong with me”. Shame is connecting that mistake to who you are as a person. Shame can impact everything you do and can actually cause negative behavior. For instance if you are feeling like you are a horrible person you might not go to your friends birthday because no one would want you there. This might later resurface as more guilt and more shame. Shame is a harder feeling to deal with but with work you can let go of those feelings as well.
Recognize Guilt has a Purpose.
Guilt is learned and the purpose is to stay connected even when we make a mistake that hurts someone. Guilt is tied tightly with empathy. We have a feeling of psychological distress when we think about hurting a friend. It comes out of a feeling of responsibility. It comes from behavior that doesn’t align with who we are and how we want to be in the world. The purpose of guilt is usually to make amends, to reconnect, to ask for forgiveness. If the person is not ready for that, that is not your responsibility, this is how they need to navigate the world. It might not have anything to do with you. Figure out what you might need to do, what action you could take.
Figure Out if it is Your Responsibility.
Sometimes it can feel like no part is your responsibility and other times it can feel like it is ALL your responsibility. Writing down the situation can be a great way to getting clarity on what was your part in the issue. In my house of 6 (4 kids and a husband) this comes up frequently. My older child will often say sorry when the younger one does something naughty. This response comes from empathy, she can see I am sad and frustrated, or my feelings are hurt. She feels it. She knows saying sorry helps to make people feel better. But one part is missing. It is not her responsibility. She did not make the hurtful comment. Now when she makes the mistake she might struggle to say sorry.
Recognize We are all Human.
One of the most important step of moving through guilt is talking to others about the mistake. When you share with a trusted friend or family member there can be support. Statements like “I’ve been there” or “Oh that must be hard” can be incredibly healing. Your friends aren’t perfect and if seem like they are, it is likely they haven’t been sharing their mistakes with you, not because they aren’t making them. If you want to hear a list of all the mistakes I’ve made, email me! Mine are sure to make you feel you are not alone.
Be a Friend to Yourself.
This is one of my favorite techniques. We often are considerably more critical and unforgiving to ourselves than to others. When you are ruminating on your feelings of guilt and mistake. Trying imagining a friend coming to you with this same issue. Ask yourself, would you want them ruminating over it still? If not, give yourself the same grace. If the answer is yes, it could be because there needs to be amends made, or an effort to resolve the issue.
Therapy can help. Therapy is an outlet for expressing the feelings of quilt. It is a place where you can share what you did or felt or thought. Judgment is suspended, which leaves you room to explore if you need to hold onto it for any reason.
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Laurie Groh, MS, LPC, SAS
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