Updated: Mar 9, 2021
What is guilt?
Guilt is experienced when something we do or think goes against what we believe to be fair, moral or ethical. Guilt can arise when we make a mistake or decide something that later turns out to the wrong one. We also feel guilt when we experience good times while people we love feel miserable. Guilt is a natural emotion, but the reasons why we experience it are learned. Guilt is not necessarily completely unuseful, but it is most of the time, and it is also painful and causes negative effects on our mental health, especially when it leads to shame.
We may experience guilt after:
Doing something on purpose.
An event we couldn't control.
Not reaching up to other people standards or expectations.
Not reaching one's own expectations.
Accepting a situation we don't feel comfortable with.
Not being able to stand up for oneself or others.
Is guilt always a negative emotion?
Like every emotion, some guilt can be positive in certain circumstances. For example, it warns you that something feels not right and if what you are doing is not serving your purpose. However, if guilt arises from a strict environment or rigid thinking patterns, it is unhelpful and limits how one experiences life. Therefore, the first thing to consider when evaluating your feelings of guilt is exploring and defining your values.
"Guilt is also a way for us to express to others
that we are a person of good conscience."
How can values help with guilt?
Your values define who you are and what you want from life. Social pressures can be very intense. You have the responsibility to decide what is acceptable for you or not, define what is critical to you and set the boundaries you find suitable for yourself. Therefore, evaluating and defining your values and what is important to you is crucial before working on guilt. Your values will help you decide which is the best direction to take when you experience conflicts between your emotional and rational needs,
Determining your values will take you closer to your authentic self.
For example, guilt can arise when a working mother is torn between the wish of a successful career and the feeling of not spending enough time with her child; or one may experience guilt after making a choice closer to their needs, but against the rules, he or she has been raised with. Making choices and living your life according to your beliefs can be tough, as it is to accept the responsibility of the outcome.
Your values will help you clarify which direction to take.
"Guilt is a waste of time unless you learn how to be
more loving the next time a similar situation presents itself."
Why am I experiencing guilt when I don't do wrong?
While guilt is a primary natural emotion, most of the times, the reasons why you experience guilt are learned. They are absorbed from the environment you live in; by interacting with your family, friends and teachers, you learn what is felt as socially acceptable or not. Feelings of guilt and shame begin when your individual needs and beliefs clash with social norms. The reasons why one may experience guilt will differ from another, and so will be the intensity of the emotions experienced. A thorough evaluation of the situation and possibly a chat with someone trustful can clarify why it feels so hard on you. Feelings of guilt are often deeply rooted and are hard to address. It takes some time to master the ability to separate what is expected from you to what makes true sense to you.
How do I stop feeling guilty?
Self-compassion and self-awareness are the most powerful tools. Practice them; they foster empathy toward yourself and others. Show kindness toward yourself and explore where your feelings of guilt come from. Self-compassion and self-awareness will teach you to accept yourself exactly the way you are, with all imperfections. Using these tools will be more effective than any attempt to get rid of guilt. Evaluating arising emotions attentively throughout this process is vital to assess how you feel around certain topics.
Is guilt taking you closer or farther to the life you want to live?
Which of your values clash with others' expectations?
What are the consequences of making your own choices?
What are the implications of not making your own choices?
When you begin to pay attention to how your thoughts influence your beliefs, you will realise if any of them needs to be reassessed to become your true self. View guilt and shame as a piece of information on how you think about life and your purpose in it. Unhelpful thought and behaviours can be modified, but who you intrinsically are cannot. Remind yourself that the only person you need to be in life is you; taking some time to reassess what is really important to you is definitely worth it.
If the need to be accepted by people you love is strong, and making different choices is not possible, be extremely kind to yourself, be openminded toward yourself and give yourself the time you need.
Accepting a role in life that is not yours is a tough choice. If you decide to do so, engage in extra self-care. Surround yourself with all love you can.
Look for support groups, and if you don't find any, organize one. You are never alone.
"Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think
we are supposed to be and embracing who we are.
Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be imperfect."
Do I need help?
If you struggle with feelings of guilt from time to time, that's ok because everyone does. There is no way to eradicate guilt from life completely, and it can be useful to avoid some rushed or foolish choices. Talking to people you trust may help to see things from a different perspective. You can also chat with like-minded people and compare your experience to theirs. If you have the chance, be honest about your wishes and feelings, it will facilitate your journey.
Remind that assessing and challenging unhelpful feelings will take you closer to a happier and meaningful life.
And if you need more information, feel free to contact me.