Most of us aren’t strangers to guilt but some of us are more familiar with it than others. It’s a common symptom of depression. When depressed the feeling of guilt is just there, even though you can’t always pinpoint what you’re feeling guilty about.
There are times when guilt is an appropriate response. To feel guilty about lying or cheating is right. This feeling of guilt stops us from doing something inconsiderate again. However to live a full and happy life we need to look at our thoughts and decide whether our guilt is right or whether we are taking too much responsibility for things we are not really responsible for.
Getting rid of guilt by self-examination
Many people, especially girls are raised to be nurturers and are taught that it is selfish to think of themselves. Even if we have a legitimate reason for letting down a friend, we feel bad, we feel guilty. We’ve broken our unconscious rule that it is selfish to think of ourselves.
Many people feel guilty when they don’t do exactly what their parents want them to do. I’ve seen many problem marriages where the parents come first even when the adult child is married. When a person marries, the partner needs to come before the parents. Learn to say no, and cut those ‘apron strings’. You will feel guilty, and this is understandable as you feel you’re no longer being the good little child anymore. Actually you’re not! That role needs to be left behind. Make a conscious decision to honor your partner first. This is healthier for you in the long run. Some people even feel guilty about not feeling guilty! It’s as if a feeling of guilt has become normal.
Too High Expectations
Many people have high expectations of themselves and not all of these are realistic. People place a guilt trip on themselves by saying that ‘they should, or must be doing certain things in a certain way’. These expectations can be conscious or in the unconscious, but if they aren’t achieved, the person feels guilty. Become conscious of the word ‘should’ in your speech or in your thinking. The words ‘should, must and ought’ are common to a perfectionist and are the source of a lot of anger and guilt. Much of this feeling of guilt can stem from ones childhood with parents making you feel guilty for example, not doing fantastically well at school. Disappointment probably would have been a better response on their part.
Perhaps you need to examine what expectations you are still holding onto that were passed onto you from your parents. If they are inappropriate and unhelpful, throw them out and replace them with your own unique realistic expectations. Don’t live your life through your parents expectations. You need to become your own person.
Guilt could be hiding other emotional problems. What you experience as guilt could be a cover for another emotion like anxiety. Anxiety plays a major part in the feeling of guilt and it often affects our behavior towards the people we feel we have wronged. You could end up overcompensating to make things right, for example flooding your friend’s inbox with notes of apologies, all in an attempt to make things right. With anxiety you typically start mind-reading that your friend must be angry with you and you blame yourself for maybe not having been attentive enough.
Check out whether what you are thinking is true, before reacting on your thoughts. Guilt also has a strong connection to fear. You feel guilty if you’re not pleasing people all the time and this guilt is then connected to a fear of rejection.
Guilt elicits sympathy
It really isn’t enough to just tell your friend how guilty you feel. You might feel better from the sympathetic words of assurance that everything is going to be okay but the problem with this approach is that you’re not dealing with this inappropriate sense of guilt. all you are doing is getting sympathy.
Giving guilt the boot!
- Check to see if you’re getting some sort of pay-off for your ‘guilt’. People feel sorry for you and try and help. This actually meets their ‘need to be needed’ but it doesn’t help you.
- List the things that you’re feeling guilty about and then make a plan how to change them. Writing really does help. So for example, if you feel that you’re not a good friend, write down the things that a ‘good’ friend would do. Be realistic and see what you can implement.
- Maybe you need to take situations less seriously. If you miss one day at the gym, you can always go tomorrow. Don’t beat yourself up unnecessarily. and when you do fail, don’t label yourself as a ‘bad’ or ‘lazy’ person.
- What is really important is to be kind to yourself, treat yourself like you’d treat your best friend. Recognize that there are things that are beyond your control and it is not your role to keep everybody happy.
- If you do hurt someone, ask them for forgiveness, stop beating yourself up unnecessarily and move on.
Finally become self-aware and be flexible. Learn how to manage your guilt triggers because this will lead to a greater happiness.