What is guilt? Guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some wrongdoing. Guilt in itself is not a bad thing… it is the voice of conscience telling us we have done wrong and we need to make amends. That kind of guilt is assuaged by an apology to the person we hurt. Or a promise to ourselves that we'll skip dessert next time. This guilt keeps us on track, and ensures we are kind and considerate towards others. Dealing with guilt like this isn't always easy but it is do-able and we can learn from it.
There is another kind of guilt that is pervasive and damaging. It’s the guilt that makes us feel worthless, depressed and prevents us from living life as it is meant to be lived. Guilt can color a good life gray. Guilt can place a wedge between relationships and friendships. Guilt can harm a parent-child bond. Guilt eats away at you until it manifests as physical and mental illness. Dealing with guilt of this sort is tough.
5 Pillars of Guilt
1. Fear of letting people down
2. The ‘should’ factor
3. Being manipulated into feeling guilty
4. Comparing self with others and coming up short. Not good enough
5. Needing people to like you.
Guilty for Letting People Down
The fear of letting people down is often instilled into us during childhood. In their ‘enthusiasm’ to bring up a likable, willing child, parents will often pile guilt upon their child via blame. “You forgot to do this…” “You haven’t cleaned your room…” “You hurt my feelings…”
The Guilty 'Shoulds' and 'Oughts'
The ‘should’ factor is clearly demonstrated by ‘mom guilt’. Mothers feel guilty if they go out to work and leave their child in the care of another. They feel guilty if they don’t go out to work. They feel guilty for asking someone to take care of their child. They feel guilty that they don’t spend enough time with their child. They feel guilty if they don’t spend enough time and energy on their partners. They can’t win. The ‘should’ factor can affect anyone – you feel guilty taking time off work or by lying exhausted on the couch while your spouse has to cook and clear up. You feel guilty doing something you enjoy when you feel you ‘ought’ to be doing chores.
Manipulated into Feeling Guilt
You can be manipulated into feeling guilty by someone who thinks you don’t give them enough attention or that you let them down in some way. Children become quite adept at getting what they want by using your guilt against you. Partners and parents can also inflict feelings of guilt upon you.
You may have created a great life. You work hard to keep it all together but still you feel guilty. Perhaps to save time you cook ready meals, or don’t iron your kids’ clothes. You compare yourself with others who seem to sail through life with impeccable organization skills. Why can’t you be like them?
I Need You to Like Me Guilt
Our need to be liked can cause guilt on many levels. We may lie to make ourselves seem like better people. We may say ‘yes’ to someone who really isn’t that important in order that they see us favorably, at the same time saying ‘no’ to a family member. Then we experience internal conflict, followed by… you guessed it, guilt.
The Effects of Guilt
Sustained feelings of guilt are damaging to our self-esteem, confidence, relationships, health and prevents us from living a full and rewarding life. I have a personal story from way back when, at the age of 23, I had my first child by C-section. My son was three days old, I was still bent over double – in those days they used staples for the wound – and probably in the beginnng stages of post-natal depression. I was having difficulty changing his diaper in the middle of the night. In my panic I rang for the nurse. She came bustling in, snatched up my baby, declaring, "This baby is freezing!” And took him away to the nursery. I was left alone in tears at 2am with the metaphorical Bad Mother sign flashing over my head. Logically, I knew he wasn’t ‘freezing’ as the maternity department was constantly overheated, but, oh the guilt as I replayed the scene over and over. It was a minor incident that had reverberations that lasted for months and prevented me bonding properly with my baby. I carried around the "You'll never be any good as a mother" feeling. I couldn’t even tell anyone about it because I felt so inadequate.
Guilt is at its worst in war veterans who were compelled to carry out acts of violence in the course of duty, but then returned home having to shoulder the guilt. This manifests in mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder. They feel they cannot live with the guilt. In cases like this, it is important to seek professional help.
Similarly, accident survivors feel guilt that they lived while another person died. Again, you must get professional advice.
Dealing With Guilt: Let it Go
Often we allow feelings of guilt to eat away at us for a long time, reliving our bad deeds, letting them accumulate until they form a rock-like burden which we carry around inside. You can overcome this. You can let this guilt go.
Take a step back. Imagine you are a close friend advising you. Hold up your guilt. What would this close friend tell you to do? Perhaps a simple apology to the person you offended/upset/hurt would do it? Maybe you don’t even have to do that. You could write it out in a letter, then burn it. Or journal about it. Once you have done whatever it takes, then let it go. Do not revisit it, don’t relive it or hold it up for regular inspection. It’s done, in the past, and dealt with.
Revisit your childhood self – what terrible thing did you do? What would you tell that child about that awful thing – that it wasn’t your fault? That you couldn’t have prevented it? That you thought you were doing the right thing at the time? Give your child-self the gift of forgiveness. Feel your being become lighter and more free.
Know that you aren’t perfect, that no-one is. Accept that you always do the best you can, as do most of us. You can never live your life without screwing up sometimes. Be kind to yourself, acknowledge you were wrong and move on. Life’s too short for guilt.
Images courtesy of Pixabay