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Guilt is not an emotion in and of itself. It is a mixed experience that includes feelings, but not always the ones that come to mind. That is why it is necessary to carefully examine its content so we can get an accurate picture of what we are experiencing. There is good guilt and bad guilt.

According to the psychologies.com website, guilt is the feeling of committing an offence. It can vary in intensity and is necessary to any form of social life. Guilt, which can sometimes be painful and restricting, is the feeling of responsibility for committing a wrongdoing or having broken a code, given in to a forbidden desire, or behaved wrongfully in front of a person or in a situation, whether real or imagined. This leads to major anxiety and a tendency to engage in self-blame. (https://dictionary.apa.org/guilt )


The guilt cycle


Healthy guilt

This is what I experience when I deliberately do something that is at odds with my values. Healthy guilt always assumes two things :

  1. that I deviated from my values and standards;
  2. that I made the choice to do so.

The fact that my behaviour was impulsive does not take away the free nature of my actions. Anger did not carry me away. I allowed myself to be carried away by my anger.

What is its purpose?

My guilt is an umbrella term covering a range of emotions.

  • I am angry with myself for overriding my principles.
  • I don’t believe in wrongly hurting people, but I just did. I am also upset with myself for giving in to the impulse.
  • I feel bad for hurting my friend whom I love. I regret it because he does not deserve to be treated that way.

My actions created an imbalance within me. This imbalance is essentially a disagreement with myself.

Guilt tells me that I was untrue to myself in a situation where I had the choice to be true to myself.


Unhealthy guilt

Unhealthy guilt is a disguise for my refusal to assume responsibility for my own desires, feelings or choices.

It is comprised of several emotions, some of which are cleverly disguised. This type of guilt usually includes anger, fear and sometimes regret.

Anger for having to experience what I am going through; anger toward those I envy for being able to make decisions I find difficult to make; fear of expressing my priorities; fear of the consequences of my choices; fear of showing my anger; regret for having hurt someone important to me, etc.

For example: my child was caught speeding, again. I wished he would be more responsible. I told him so calmly and respectfully. I told him that he could no longer use my car. He accused me of not understanding and judging him. I felt guilty for making him feel that way. I apologized and told him I’m sorry. However, it was not what I said but rather his interpretation of my message that caused him to feel that way. His actions could have consequences for both of us, and I can’t let that happen.

What is its purpose?

  1. To allow me to avoid taking responsibility for my actions : Guilt diminishes my feeling of responsibility for the choices I make. My actions seem less serious, because I “regret” them. If I feel guilty, I feel less selfish.
  2. To neutralize the reaction of others : If I admit that I feel guilty about something I did, the other person should hold me less accountable. Admitting my guilt is therefore a manipulation technique for diminishing the consequences of my actions. The cloak of guilt often serves both purposes: It eases my conscience and controls the reaction of others. It is harmful because it is a way to avoid assuming responsibility.


The causes of guilt

Cause #1 : I did something wrong

  • I have truly done something wrong, which has hurt someone either physically or psychologically. There is no way to dispute what happened: I really did do it.
  • I may feel bad because I have betrayed my values or beliefs. For example: I may have lied, stolen or cheated.
  • It is appropriate to feel guilty in this case. Unhealthy guilt happens when you ruminate on what you’ve done.
  • You have to accept your actions; apologize to the person you hurt and find a way to make sure you do not do it again.
  • Because humans are egocentric, you may attach more importance to the action than the person who was harmed by the action. We may be under the impression that others will attach a lot of importance to the action and its associated thoughts, but that may not end up being the case.

Cause #2 : I feel bad about something I have not done but would like to do

  • I am thinking about doing something that may deviate from my beliefs and values, such as committing a dishonest or illegal act. Just thinking about it makes me feel bad, although I have yet to actually do anything.
  • I can try to push it away or deny it. However, in doing so, I may end up committing the act, or I may use other means to keep from doing it that are no more in line with my values than committing the act itself.

So, what should I do? I can try to accept the fact that I am having this thought and find solutions to keep from acting upon it. This is a real thought that I am having, and it shouldn’t be pushed away. Now, what should I do about it?

Cause #3 : I feel guilty about something I think I did

  • According to several cognitive theories, we have difficulty experiencing joy because we experience too much guilt. In reality, we experience irrational thoughts about situations. When you think you have done something, you will experience it with the same and maybe even more intensity than if you had actually done it.

For example : When I think my thoughts may have an influence on what happens to others. I imagined that my spouse was in a car accident. Now, it may come be true! And if that happens, I’ll have the irrational feeling that it’s my fault.

  • Somehow, I know this doesn’t make sense, but it’s hard to stop thinking it anyway.
  • Our memory can also be incorrect, especially when emotions are running high. I may think I did something wrong but, in reality, that’s not what happened at all.
  • Before blaming ourselves, we must make sure that we truly are guilty of the act. We need to find credible information to prove it because our memory cannot always be trusted.

Cause #4 : I feel guilty that I didn’t do enough to help someone

  • Your friend is sick. You have spent many hours of your time assisting him. Now, your obligations are forcing you to spend less time with him. Or perhaps your neighbour has experienced a huge loss, such as a death or fire. You have given several days or weeks of your time but are no longer able to do so. Guilt starts to eat away at you, and you do everything you can to continue helping. Psychologists call this “compassion fatigue.” Generally a term used for professional caregivers, it is a phenomenon that can also affect natural caregivers.
  • It is important to determine if you are willing to make sacrifices because you want to versus because you experience guilt when you are not helping. If you are doing it out of guilt, the risk of fatigue is greater and will make you a less effective caregiver.

Cause #5 : I feel guilty because I am doing better than someone else

Survivor’s guilt is a good example. We may feel this kind of guilt just because our lives are going well or better than someone else’s. For example, a first-generation college student may feel guilty because they have an opportunity in life that their parents or siblings did not. In order to “protect” other members of the family, they will engage in self-destructive behaviours that will result in them not being able to complete their education.

What should you do? The only way to let go of survivor’s guilt is to remember that your failures will not bring the other person back and others will not feel better if you experience failure. Make attempts to experience the successes your family would have wanted you to have.


Source : Gabrielle Brind’Amour, L’Accolade santé mentale

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