Guilt is an emotion we experience when we believe we have hurt someone, or we do not live up to our own moral standards. Notice in this statement that the belief or the thought comes before
the emotion. “We think” therefore “we feel”.
· Believe we hurt someone = Guilt
· Believe we failed to live up to our standards = Guilt
Another culprit of feeling guilt is a form of negative thinking called personalization. According to Burns (1999), personalization occurs when we hold ourselves personally responsible for things that are out of our control. For example, your child receives a bad grade and you automatically think “I must be a bad parent”. Personalization is a form of blame that we put on ourselves without trying to pinpoint why exactly the child is not doing well at school. Another form of negative thinking is “should’ statements.
“I should never make mistakes”
“I should be independent”
“I should always be happy”
“I should never get tired or feel sick”
“Shoulds” are a list of rules that (you believe) you and others should follow. If these rules are not followed you feel guilty. These thoughts and beliefs that result in feelings of guilt can lead to depression and anxiety.
Guilt in moderate amounts is normal, it allows up to preserve relationships, but excessive chronic feelings of guilt are unhealthy and debilitating. Unhealthy guilt does not leave room for mistakes, and to make errors is human. Unhealthy guilt can stem from:
Clashing with social norms or religious beliefs- For example, getting a divorce may go against a person’s religious beliefs so they stay in an unhealthy marriage out of guilt or they continue to feel guilty if they follow through with divorce.
Unrealistic Standards- having unrealistic standards can cause a person to pass harsh judgements upon themselves when they make a mistake. Guilt sets in when we cannot forgive ourselves.
Excessive punishment- growing up in a home where there is abuse or where the punishments are greater than the wrong done can cause a person to internalize fear of punishment. This can manifest itself into guilt and feelings of being judged.
How does Guilt Effect your Behavior?
People who experience unhealthy amount of guilt tend to:
· Lacking boundaries - giving to much of themselves and becoming overly responsible
· Overthink everything for fear that others may judge you
· Become so paralyzed with the fear of doing something or saying something wrong that you choose not to do or say anything.
· Lose confidence in your ability to make the right decisions
· Unaware that your belief that it is better to put others needs ahead of your own, is motivated by guilt
Ways to Cope with Unhealthy Guilt
Self-compassion- Most important coping skill is being kind to yourself. Forgive yourself and learn from your mistake. Talk to yourself like you would a friend or loved one in the same situation.
Does the crime fit the punishment? – Ask your self if what you are putting yourself through fits what you feel you did wrong. My guess it does not.
You are not your actions- you may be responsible for how you act but the act does not define who you are as a person. We all make mistakes, it is okay.
Identify thought and beliefs that trigger guilt- Identifying should statements and core beliefs that cause you to feel guilty and replacing them with more realistic expectations will eliminate future ruminations of guilt.
If you find your self struggling with guilt I can help you. Please feel free to contact me.
Best Regards, Heather
Burns, D. D. (1999). The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: Penguin Group.
Lalor, D. (n.d.). Dealing with Feelings of Guilt. Retrieved from Cottesloe Counselling Center: https://cottesloecounselling.com.au/dealing-with-feelings-of-guilt/