3 steps to get a grip on your guilt

My own struggle to live with this tricky emotion started when I was very young. I was brought up in convents, which were tough on an adventurous child who found sinning very exciting.

Photograph of a young black woman laughing

But I became cunning and was rarely found out. I largely avoided the cruel caning that so many of my friends endured, but my punishment lasted longer. It came in the form of persistent internal guilt. This feeling gnawed away at my self-esteem and was partly responsible for much of the self-destructive behaviour that nearly destroyed my life in early adulthood.

So, not surprisingly, when I later become a psychotherapist, I developed a special interest in this topic. Almost every client I have ever had has been troubled in some way by guilt. I have seen it sabotage the efforts of many able people when they are in the midst of difficulties. They plague themselves with obsessive self-questioning and self-blame, tending to feel overly responsible for their problems.

Every man is guilty of all the good he didn’t do

– Voltaire, writer and philosopher.

Key 1: Stop wishing your guilt away

Accept that guilt is going to be one of life’s companions! As is the case with any irritating “companion” you are stuck with, it is your responsibility to find a way of managing the relationship. No magic wand can make it disappear.

Key 2: Label guilt as true or false

True guilt is when you know you have done something which is not in line with your own moral code. This kind of feeling is a positive force. Its function is to produce enough discomfort to prompt you back on to the straight and narrow. It also curtails arrogance, and psychologists believe that it evolved in order to enable us to work cooperatively in groups, as our tasks and problems were becoming more complex and too challenging for one individual.

False guilt is the kind you may feel even when your intellect and moral code tell you that you have done no wrong. This kind of feeling is usually triggered by someone else’s real or imagined disapproval. A classic example for women today is when they feel guilty for leaving their children in the care of someone else to go out to work, while for men, it is when they feel guilty because they have had to accept sustenance from someone else because they have no means to feed, clothe or educate their family.

In both cases, such “guilt trips” are often linked to values which were absorbed at an impressionable age from parents or grandparents or the more general influence of a culture or religion.

Image of three friends working at an outside coffee shop

False guilt can also be an irrational symptom of people in a state of grief or depression. An example of this would be the “survivor guilt” felt by families of people who have died in an accident or disaster. Another example of false guilt emerging in difficult times is when a recession causes a sharp rise in redundancies. Those who have managed to keep their jobs while so many around them have lost theirs are sometimes plagued by guilt.

Both true and false guilt can have debilitating and demotivating effects, and as they often feel the same, even very bright, self-aware people may confuse the two. Correct labelling of the emotion is essential because the action we need to take for each kind is different. You may need help to do this from someone you can trust to be objective and honest.

Key 3: Take appropriate action 

Action for true guilt

Say sorry and spell out what you have learnt and intend to do differently as a result. Recompense in the best way you can. For example, you may not be able to undo what you said or did, but you could send flowers, do a good turn or send a donation to an appropriate charity. Give yourself a self-esteem boost.

Action for false guilt

Identify the cause of false guilt and remind yourself of your own guiding moral code and life priorities. Next, compose a “permission” sentence that counters the unwanted moral message in your subconscious mind. It should remind you of one of your own good moral traits and a basic human right. For example, “I strive to be a good parent and have a right to make my own mind up about the wrong and right way to bring up my children.” Or, “I am a compassionate and generous person even if I am exercising my right to work/be happy/live when others cannot.”

Write your sentence out again 20 times, then, with a calm, firm voice, read it aloud. This may sound boring and punitive, but it does work. Repetition is the key to programming moral directives into your mind. But in this exercise, you are in the director’s chair. Each time you feel your false guilt resurface, repeat your sentence several times in your head.

If your false guilt remains persistent it may be that it relates to an unhealed emotional wound, in the way that the survivor guilt mentioned above does. The answer then is to consider speaking with a therapist or counsellor for further support.

Gael Lindenfield, How to Feel Good in Difficult Times

Extract taken from How to Feel Good In Difficult Times: Simple Strategies to Help You Survive & Thrive by Gael Lindenfield, published by Trigger, RRP £9.99.

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Written by Gael Lindenfield
Gael Lindenfield is a psychotherapist and author.
Written by Gael Lindenfield
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