Updated: Nov 18
What is guilt?
Guilt is an emotion we experience when something we do or think goes against what we believe to be fair, moral or ethical. Guilt can be expressed toward ourselves or toward others. We may experience guilt after something we have done on purpose or for something that happened, and we couldn't control. Moreover, being raised in strict environments increases one's perception of guilt; the same applies for not reaching up to other people standards or expectations. Sometimes, we can be also the ones who set expectations too high and feel guilty if they are not attained. Other times we accept to play a role in life that is not ours, and our guilt comes from there.
"Guilt is also a way for us to express to others that we are a person of good conscience. Tom Hodgkinson"
Is guilt always a negative emotion?
Like every emotion, some guilt can be positive in certain circumstances. For example, it may be warning you that something is not right, and what you are doing is not serving your purpose, so that you can find an alternative way. However, most of the times, guilt is experienced as unhelpful, and problems arise when, what we perceive as correct and what we would like to do or be, collide.
If the feeling of guilt comes from a belief that has been voluntarily chosen, it helps you move toward your values. Nevertheless, if the guilty emotion experienced is originated from ideas established by social rules, it can be incredibly stressful. Therefore, the first thing to consider when it comes to evaluating your feelings of guilt is to explore and assess your values.
How do values help?
Your values define what you are and what you want from life. Social pressures can be very intense, but you have the responsibility to determine the boundaries you find suitable for yourself. Therefore, evaluating and defining your values is crucial before you begin to work on guilt. Your values will help you when struggle arises, from contrasting emotional and rational needs,
Determining your Values will lead you toward your authentic self.
Guilt can arise when a working mother is torn between the desire of a successful career or the need for money and the feeling of not spending enough time with her child. Or someone may experience guilt after making a choice closer to their needs that goes against the principle they have been raised with.
You are responsible for making choices and living your life. Unreasonable standards will only keep you filled with guilt, making life harder on you than it already is. Your values will help you clarify which direction you should preferably take.
"Guilt is a waste of time unless you learn how to be more loving the next time a similar situation presents itself. Annette Vaillancourt"
Why am I experiencing guilt when I don't do wrong?
While guilt is a primary natural emotion, the reasons why you experience guilt are learned. You absorb them from the environment you live in. Simply by interacting with your family, friends and teachers, you learn what is felt as socially right and what is perceived as wrong. Feelings of guilt and shame begin to form when fulfilling your own individual needs clashes with your beliefs or social norms. Each individual is different, so is the environment everyone grows in. Therefore, 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 what is happening and possibly a chat with someone trustful can help you clarify why it is so hard for you.
Feelings of guilt are deeply rooted and are hard to address. It takes some time to master the ability to separate what is expected from you to what truly makes 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. Be kind to yourself and explore where your feelings of guilt are coming from. Self-compassion and self-awareness are beautiful tools you can use to learn to accept yourself exactly the way you are, with all your imperfections. These tools will be more effective than any tentative to get rid of guilt. Evaluating what is happening for you is vital.
Is guilt taking you closer or farther to the life you want to live?
How much do your own values clash with what others are expecting from you?
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 the way your thoughts influence your beliefs, you will start to realize which of them need to be changed for you to become your true self. View guilt and shame as a piece of information on how you think about your life and your purpose in it. Unhelpful thought can be changed and remind that the only person you need to be in life is you. Spending some time to reassess what is important to you is definitely worth the effort.
If the need to be socially accepted from people you love is too strong, and making different choices is not possible, be extremely kind to yourself.
Accepting a role in life that is not yours, is a tough choice, if you do so, pay a lot of effort in self-care. Surround yourself with all the 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. Brené Brown"
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; moreover, you can use it to avoid rushed or foolish choices. Talking to people that are close to you 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 can, be honest about your wishes and feelings, it will facilitate your journey.
Remind that assessing and challenging unhelpful guilt feelings, will take you closer to a happier and meaningful life.
And if you need more information, feel free to contact me.