Emotions 3: Guilt
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Tricia Johnson MBACP (Senior Accredited) Counsellor, Supervisor and Trainer
9th November, 2007
Guilt is probably one of the harder emotions to work through and accept, because shame and embarrassment so often go hand-in-hand with it in relation to the action that we feel guilty about. Yet, guilt can be very informative and helpful, alerting us to areas in our lives that need attention.
Guilt can come in two ways. We are all very aware of the guilt we experience when we have done something wrong, and may be in danger of being found out. Whether it is stealing something, being deceitful and lying to someone who trusts us, breaking the speed limit – any of these could result in feelings of guilt. This guilt is probably the easier of the two to deal with. It is generally logical and makes sense; thus it is more straight-forward to understand where the guilt is coming from and what can be done to prevent it from returning. Having said that, it may not be that straight forward to unravel the situation created by the action for which we feel guilty!
However, most experiences of guilt arise from an unrealistic goal. A young woman’s goal is to be the perfect mother; to never make a mistake in her parenting. A new employee’s goal is to never make a mistake in his work; to always be seen as competent and efficient. Both will inevitably feel guilty every time they fail to achieve these unrealistic goals. Identifying these goals, and maybe learning where they originate from, is essential if the young woman or the new employee is to move into greater freedom and psychological well-being. This form of guilt can thus be useful in determining the internal standards and expectations a person may have that may need to be modified.
Yet again acceptance has to be the starting point if we are ever to work through guilt and understand what it is telling us. If we deny its existence we will become more and more confused and disturbed. Having accepted it, we can then determine which kind of guilt we are experiencing. Have we broken some external rule or law, or internal value? If so, we might then need to modify our behaviour. Or does the guilt indicate that we have an unrealistic goal or standard? If so, we need to look at that standard, maybe explore where it has come from and then seek to modify it to something that is more realistic and healthy.
This is a very quick look at guilt, but hopefully I have shown that working through and seeking to understand our guilt is very helpful if we are to grow stronger as individuals, and become more effective in our relationships with others.
If guilt is something that you really struggle with, and you need help in working it through then please feel free to contact me for further information, without commitment.
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