Do You Meet My 3 Criteria for Feeling Guilty?

This is typically the time of year we begin to take stock of all that has transpired in the past months and our hopes for the coming year. It’s also that time of year when feelings of “guilt” tend to rise to the surface:  Guilt we’ve not given enough, been kind enough,  done enough, been enough, said enough, worked hard enough, lived up to our own goals or missed meeting others’ expectations  . . . .  You get the idea – humans are very creative when conjuring up guilty feelings.

Almost everyone I saw in private practice as a psychotherapist, at one time or another, expressed guilt:

Some harbored guilty feelings they were responsible for a parent’s short-comings, abusive behavior or unhappiness; Many felt guilty they had left an abusive home when they were of age and left a younger sibling behind without protection;  Clients felt guilty they couldn’t provide for their family in the way they imagined they should.  I could give millions . . . of other examples.

Guilt is my least favorite emotion because much of the time it is an intellectualization – an attempt to make sense of the irrational – while the feelings of sadness, hurt or fear lurk beneath our surfaces .  

Don’t get me wrong.  Guilt is needed and appropriate if you’ve done something immoral, illegal or unethical as it helps correct the course of future choices and actions.

  • Immoral – Guilt maintains healthy relationships
  • Illegal -Guilt helps keep society functioning at it’s optimum
  • Unethical – Guilt keeps business, commerce on the right path

If I said this once while I was in practice,  I said it a trillion times:

“DO feel guilty if you’ve betrayed or hurt another person, broken the law, or been unprofessional.  STOP thinking you’re guilty if your behavior doesn’t meet the the immoral, illegal or unethical litmus test and choose another emotion”

Why do we choose guilt when our actions aren’t immoral, illegal or unethical?  We want to think we have/had control – that we could have chosen to do something differently and therefore we will be in control and have choice in the future.  With feelings of sadness, fear or hurt we are simply vulnerable and feel out of control – out of control of ourselves and over circumstances.

If you think you are “guilty” and have not broken an immoral, illegal or unethical code pick another feeling! – any other feeling:  mad, sad, disgusted, fearful, hurt . . .  You won’t die if you are vulnerable.  Our fantasy of always being in control is mainly that . . . fantasy.

(jw)

 

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

14 thoughts on “Do You Meet My 3 Criteria for Feeling Guilty?

  1. This is a really interesting topic. You’ve given lots to consider and I’m going to come back to this several times to make sure I grasp everything of importance – and to make sure I give up the “guilt” I shouldn’t be feeling. I’d never thought of choosing another feeling but it makes sense. Thank you for an illuminating article.

    Like

    • Shari,
      Guilt can ride on our backs with tentacles that reach back into the past and forward into our future. When I write that it is my least favorite emotion – for most people I know – I am sincere. “Wracked with guilt” can be insidious. Those who have done something immoral,illegal or unethical often don’t feel guilty when they should. I could go on and on but the post, hopefully, speaks for itself.

      Like

  2. After my husband passed away last year, I told myself that I should have, could have, would have done more while he was sick. I was torturing myself. Sometimes I relive the past. I have to tell myself to stop it. It is just too traumatic. He passed away 2 days before Christmas, December 23, 2016.

    Like

    • Linda T.
      Yes, I’ve heard from many others exactly what you are describing when a loved one passes. Anniversary dates are the hardest as they trigger old, outdated feelings. (we will have a post on this).
      The depth of “should haves, could haves is testimony to your depth of caring and love. As I said in the post, pick another emotion that will make you feel perhaps more vulnerable but in the long run allow you to channel your love and caring into a healthier direction for yourself.

      Blessing this Christmas. Celebrate his life rather than his death.
      judy

      Like

  3. This is a very interesting message for all of us ridden with guilt. I never thought of choosing another emotion. What if the guilt is over some bit that one has done in the past that was immoral; and has created some relationship issues but you have been feeling guilty about it ? How can this be fixed or how can one find peace in that?

    Like

    • Jessica,
      Feeling guilty about doing something that was immoral is appropriate and a signal to do right behavior. Making amends for past indiscretion takes many forms but the most powerful is to treat all people lovingly. LEARNING from our mistakes and making appropriate corrections is what human life is about. Humans are not perfect, only perfectly human. I believe that if we learn and grow from the mistakes we make it’s a gift we give ourselves and others.
      Continued guilt may mean you’ve not figured out what you needed to learn or not realized it was about leaning not about being a bad person.

      We make decisions – good & bad – at any one time based on our life experience and circumstances up to that time. The way to find peace is to use it as a learning experience, understand we all hurt others with our immaturity, ignorance etc. and figure out what right action/behaviour you can take for the rest of your life.

      Use “guilt” as a tap on the shoulder to get back on the right track. Kinda like a “whoops”. Since I don’t know your specific circumstances I’m speaking in generalities but hope it helps a bit. GOOD people always feel guilty when they’ve hurt others. Your guilt tells ms you are a good person.

      judy

      Love is a behavior.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for you’re response and advice. It was needed and I will try to figure out all the ways I can make amends for my behaviour in the past and mature by making the proper actions on the present and future💙

        Like

        • Jessica,
          That is all you can do and exactly what we ALL need to do when we make a “mistake”. Let me know how it works for you. And don’t forget to pick another feeling(s) after you’ve figured out what is right behavior for you. Four basic feelings are mad, sad, glad, afraid and degrees of all of them.
          judy

          Liked by 1 person

        • I will, I don’t want to directly say sorry about it as it’s something that was when I was younger and a while ago and it was something that can be very awkward. But I want to show I’m sorry in other ways. I have been kinder to this person and showing more respect for them but I want to find ways to be sorry without having to have a Talk about it..

          Like

        • Jessica,
          You are right on track. It’s not always necessary to directly apologize or have “a talk”. Sometimes it’s actually not advisable to talk. It sounds like you have good judgement and being kind and respectful is doing right behavior. Your guilt was a good guide. It may be time to say thank you to the guilt and send it on vacation where it can chill and relax its vigilance!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Woul I be using the basic feelings appropriately if I were to start saying to myself that I am ‘sad’ that I wronged this person but ‘glad’ I am still able to have communiationwith this person and this person also still shows kidness towards me?

          Like

Howling discouraged, purring preferred (comments are posted after being read)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.