Moving beyond toxic guilt
As we move along in our daily lives, our emotions send us important messages about our needs and our sense of who we are in relation to others. Even when we are not consciously aware of what they are telling us, they motivate us to respond in certain ways. Although these messages developed to help us adapt to the world around us, what they say is not always helpful for our continued sense of wellbeing.
“Saying ‘no’ does not come easily to me. It feels unsettling”. “I don’t really tell people what I want. It’s easier to go along with them instead”.
Can you hear yourself within these words? If so, you might be struggling with toxic guilt.
Guilt can be very uncomfortable to experience but it is a natural and healthy emotion. It sets off an alarm, warning you that you have deviated from your personal moral compass. This gives you the chance to reflect, take any necessary responsibility and try to move on. In this way, guilt is an essential ingredient for developing and maintaining relationships. More than that, it helps bind society together by encouraging a sense of responsibility to each other. However, guilt is not always so helpful. And, in certain situations, it can even be destructive.
When guilt becomes a problem
When something goes wrong or tensions are high, you might find yourself automatically taking on a large share of the blame. You might even feel guilty even when you know you have done nothing wrong. When this kind of guilt strikes, it can bring up a host of distressing emotions and leave you feeling confused or frustrated. This is because it is born from and triggers shame.
Many psychologists and counsellors describe shame as toxic because it puts the spotlight on who you are as a person rather than focusing on your actions. It carries messages like ‘I am unworthy’, ‘I am bad’ or ‘something is wrong with me’. Such judgements leave you with the sense of never quite being enough and with the underlying fear that you could be rejected or abandoned. This is a deeply unsettling and isolating experience which people naturally want to avoid.
If you experience toxic guilt and shame, it can cause you to constantly doubt yourself and feel highly sensitive to how other people respond to you. You might feel anxious about making mistakes or worry that you have accidentally upset someone. In trying to manage these thoughts and feelings, it is easy to develop the habit of striving to please people. The problem is: you then end up crossing your boundaries and neglecting your own needs. You also put yourself in an impossible situation. No one can please others all of the time and no one can avoid making mistakes. So, when you manage to meet these conditions, you will be able to keep your shame and guilt at bay. But, when you don’t, they will lash out at you again and continue the cycle.
This experience and particularly the shame which lies in its roots can sometimes lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health difficulties. It can also leave you open to manipulation or becoming trapped in unhappy or abusive relationships.
Finding a way forward
When you feel that you are bad because you made a mistake, it can be helpful to acknowledge the emotions you are experiencing and then remind yourself that we all make mistakes and do things which are considered bad sometimes. Making mistakes or doing something bad does not make you a bad person. Thinking this thought is not going to miraculously get rid of your shame. Nor does it mean that you are avoiding any genuine responsibility you might hold. It is just a possible starting point in trying to respond differently. To move further along the path, you will need to take a closer look at how you experience shame and guilt.
Counselling can help you to uncover the messages behind your feelings of guilt and shame in an environment where you are not judged, but accepted for who you are. The safety provided by this depth of understanding and acceptance can be very powerful. It can enable you to address the beliefs and self-judgements which keep you trapped in unhelpful patterns of behaviour and to start being kinder to yourself. This frees you up to find new ways of responding to situations and to accept the things you cannot control. Through this process, you can begin to let go of responsibility which is not yours and, along with it, your sense of toxic guilt and shame.
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