One of the things I work with the most as a therapist is guilt.
Guilt is an emotion that can be caused by our own negative self appraisal or when we imagine others are judging us or experience others to be judging us.
It can come from our own expectations of how we should be behaving, or it can come from others' standards of how we should be having—for example, our family, society, our religion, our workplace.
As a therapist, I see it most often as a highly destructive and harmful emotion. I rarely see this emotion function to help my female clients "behave" or as some important moral compass that prevents them from acting terribly. Almost always, it has been used as a weapon in their childhood to control and harm them. The kinds of things they have been taught to feel guilty about are not legitimate. For example, sexually abused children feel guilty about not allowing others access to their bodies. Children who have been emotionally abused feel guilty when other people around them have trouble with their anger.
Guilt also plays a starring role in many mental health issues. For example, when struggling with depression, many of my clients are suddenly overwhelmed with constant, pervasive guilty feelings. Those who have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are plagued with guilt over their intrusive thoughts that they can't control. People who have PTSD will often feel guilty and responsible when they are traumatized; people who have social anxiety will often carry great guilt.
When I read the psychological literature, guilt is discussed as a healthy emotion necessary and helps us know when we have made a mistake, and I rarely see this as the case.
Women in particular struggle with mental health issues because of the messages they have been programmed with of what they need to be to be good enough. When they fall short of all of the expectations of what they should be doing as a woman they feel guilty.
Additionally, in my office, I see women whose families teach them to feel guilty for :
This list goes on and on. The standards by which we are judged are endless, so various things constantly trigger this emotion.
Guilt is taught to therapists as being closely related to shame. Normally we accept the definition of guilt as "I did something bad" and shame as " I am bad." I think that line is really fine. How long can you keep doing everything bad before you become bad? Many women live with a sense of shame and not being good enough because of these layers of expectations that have to be shed.
The kinds of things that women feel guilty about and immobilize them often have to do with how much they ate the day before, how dirty their house is, are they attractive enough, were they too assertive, have they pleased everyone around them?
One thing I help my clients do to shed some of their guilt is to create their own list of values. Here are two exercises I use with my clients to help them do this. This list helps you narrow down your values, and here is a list where you can work on clarifying them in each of your life domains. Learn more about values here.
Doing values work can help you decide what is and isn't important to you. Shed some of the programming you didn't choose, and create their own compass.
Values work can help you find your voice. You will be more qualified to trust your own judgment around guilt.
Usually, when I give this exercise to my clients, they decide to feel "guilty" about treating other people with a lack of kindness rather than their waist size. They begin to let go of unrealistic and oppressive standards that they have internalized.
Recognize illegitimate guilt.
If it isn't yours, let it go. You didn't choose what people and society chose to put in your head as things to feel guilty about when you were a child. But now you do. And you have to work to get rid of the old stuff. Sometimes this work requires creating new habits. This can be hard and uncomfortable, but eventually, you will get used to ignoring these signals and breaking the pattern. For example, if you discover you have been programmed to feel guilty when you don't please people around you, begin to let go of that behavior. Eventually, you will get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, and it will get easier. If so....
If Not, let it go! If so don't do that thing.
For this reason, I tell my female client's guilt is a useless emotion UNLESS it stops them from doing something that they have deemed harmful or inconsistent with who they want to be. Ask yourself, is this feeling stopping me from doing a bad thing? If you are about to steal from a bank, then it's useful. If not, let it go. Unless...
Ask yourself if you have harmed someone?
If you have done something to harm someone, make amends.
If you have done the values work and you decided that something that has happened in the past rises to the level of violating one of your core values, make amends. Then let it go. And...
Self-compassion is the best way to help yourself with challenging feelings and situations.
Here are four ways to do it.
NO. In my experience, when my clients have made a mistake or have done something to hurt someone they love, guilt is the thing that makes it hard to apologize because it causes them to feel so badly about themselves that they want to hide. It's often attached to a critical voice, self-hatred, and painful sensations. Most of us associate things that we feel guilty for with negative childhood experiences. So rarely were we parented with love and compassion, especially around mistakes that we made as children. It also may be that it becomes tangled up in shame or the " I am bad." Either way, doing the work above to tease out all of the confusing messages about what your values are versus what others tell you you need to be, helps you have clarity about how you want to be behaving.
Leave how to get over guilt for this related page on assertiveness which talks about false beliefs
Leave how to get over guilt for this page on codependency
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