Misplaced guilt

Being able to own our mistakes can be a real indicator of emotional strength. In instances where we feel we have done wrong, recognition and regret are usually the first steps in repairing the damage. Guilt feelings, while painful, necessarily help to coordinate our behavior towards others. Without them our personal ethic and connection to others may only ever be skin deep.

However some individuals face profound difficulties in overcoming guilt feelings which in fact are inappropriate to the situation, or which greatly exaggerate their responsibility for it. We can perhaps term this 'misplaced guilt'.

Some of us will experience misplaced guilt at times of crisis. It is a fairly common response to trauma, where compulsive thoughts of what we might or should have done can dominate the aftermath of a traumatic event, such as an accident or a bereavement. Guilt here is not a rational response, but it can be a persistent one, possibly serving to ward off an even worse awareness of total helplessness. Children are particularly prone to feeling misplaced guilt. When something overtly distressing happens to a child they will often need help with feelings of misplaced guilt. Yet even in situations which may not strike an adult as traumatic, children can feel inappropriately guilty. Harsh parental control can contribute to these feelings. Misplaced guilt is not however restricted to those instances where parenting may have been too strict. It can come about where a child feels out of control, possibly because there is some absence of parenting, for whatever reason. Often the less control a child has in reality over a situation, the more they will assume guilt for it. Sometimes guilt is even assumed by children on behalf of those around them.

These feelings are almost never conscious, and as adults it can be hard to put into words why a tendency to feel self-blame has become an ever present default position. This kind of guilt, which serves no purpose in our development as people, can block our growth and distort our relationship with others. We may even recognize that we tend to sabotage happiness because of it.

Rather than allowing these feelings to dominate our daily lives, counselling and psychotherapy can be a very helpful place to work through them.

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