I’m still regretting a couple of things I said / did while in high school. I’m sure you can think of a couple as well. It is surprising how often we have feelings of guilt. Some say that the moments of guilt add up to about 5 hours a week. With our constant striving for perfection, whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslin, Buddhist, or Hindu, it is no wonder we don’t always live up to our own standards and moral codes. The guilt can be beneficial or unhealthy depending on the situation.
Just to be clear on what’s being discussed here, let me point out the difference between guilt and shame. They are frequently used interchangeably, but there is a difference.
How are Guilt and Shame Different?
Shame involves feelings about yourself, generally reflecting early psychological damage that impedes positive personality growth. It could be your feelings about who you are or who you aren’t, projected by society, which can become ingrained into your own self-evaluation, whether they are legitimate or not.
Guilt is a common feeling of emotional distress that tells us when our actions or inactions have caused, might cause or we imagine will cause harm to another person—physical, emotional, or otherwise. Because guilt hinges on empathy for others, the capacity to feel guilt could be seen as emotional progress.
When is Guilt a Good Thing?
Healthy feelings of guilt motivate you to live according to your authentic values, which, in turn, can improve your relationships with others, since you are more likely to treat them with respect and do your fair share. Guilt protects our relationships.
In small doses, guilt can benefit us. But when it runs free, it can cause havoc.
When is Guilt Harmful?
Unnecessary or excessive feelings of guilt, even mild guilt, can be a psychological burden that interferes with your emotions and quality of life.
If you feel guilty too easily your guilt alarm goes off when it shouldn’t. As a result, you end up feeling guilty about impacting others adversely, when you haven’t. This is no minor issue; by over-interpreting people’s disapproval when it’s not there, you’re exposing yourself to constant and unnecessary stress and impacting your own quality of life.
On the more serious end of the spectrum, excessive or inappropriate guilt can be a symptom of clinical depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Unwarranted guilt has also been associated with a history of childhood trauma with critical, neglecting, or abusive parents. These feelings of guilt can instill a sense of unworthiness and can result in self-punishment.
Unresolved guilt is like having a snooze alarm in your head that won’t shut off. Your attention is constantly monopolized by bursts of guilty feelings which compete for your attention to work, school, and life in general. Guilt usually wins. Studies have found that concentration, productivity, creativity, and efficiency are all significantly lower when you’re feeling actively guilty.
What are Some Causes of Guilt?
Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. suggests that guilt may occur when “a person believes or realizes—accurately or not—that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a universal moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation.” This would include stealing, lying or cheating and much more.
Yet much of the unhappiness we experience is due to our own irrational thoughts about situations. We know that our memory of past events is highly unreliable. It’s possible for you to have done nothing wrong at all but misremember and think that you did, particularly when there are highly charged feelings involved.
One typical mental source of guilt is the magical belief that you can jinx people by thinking about them in a negative or hurtful way. Perhaps you’ve wished that a romantic rival would experience some evil twist of fate. Should that evil twist of fate happen, you may, at some level, believe that it was due to your own vengeful wish. At some level you “know” that you’re being illogical, but it’s hard to rid yourself completely of this belief.
Then there are the accidental social blunders. Perhaps you didn’t realize how much you hurt your friend’s feelings with what you thought was a humorous remark. You wonder how many other people you have offended unintentionally. Beware; it is possible to unwittingly make matters worse by distancing yourself from the person who is the focus of your guilt.
People with eating disorders often feel excessive guilt about eating, putting on weight, or not exercising enough. This guilt often co-exists with a distorted, negative body image.
Women, in particular, are prone to feeling guilty, according to research. A 2009 study by Etxebarria, published in the Spanish Journal of Psychology, surveyed women and men from three age groups (156 teenagers, 96 young adults, and 108 older adults) about which situations most often caused them to feel guilt. The researchers found that habitual guilt was higher for women than men in all three age groups, with the biggest gap in the 40 to 50 year-old range. This age corresponds to the “sandwich generation” years, in which many people juggle taking care of teenagers as well as aging parents.
Especially during those stressful years, you may feel you haven’t done enough to help someone. You’ve given hours of your free time to them, but now you have other obligations or are getting burnt out. You feel guilty because you are pursuing your own life when they are suffering, dysfunctional, or need a lot of emotional care. Adding to the overall emotional drain of the situation, your guilt overlaid on the fatigue, ultimately makes you a less effective helper.
Another study found that women report more guilt than men, overall, when they take work calls or answer work emails in the evening. Finally, research shows that millennial women—and millennials in general—feel guilty about taking vacations.
A more deeply disturbing experience is that of survivor guilt which is addressed by professionals who work with combat veterans who outlive their fellow troops. Survivor guilt also occurs when people who lose families, friends, or neighbors in disasters while remaining untouched, or at least alive, themselves.
Additionally, this kind of guilt characterizes those who make a better life for themselves than do their family or friends. First-generation college students, for example, may feel guilty that they are getting opportunities that their parents or siblings did not. To “protect” their family members, they might engage in self-destructive behaviors that ensure they won’t make it in school. Logic would dictate that the family truly wants the student to succeed (and thus bring honor to the family), but this logic is lost on the student.
How do I Deal With My Guilt?
Before you start accusing yourself of wrongdoing, make sure that the wrongdoing took place. If you’re distorting your recollection of events to make yourself seem more at fault than you are, it’s time for a reality check. “We assume that others place far more importance on our thoughts and actions than they actually do”, Dr. Whitbourne adds
In the case of excessive guilt, it is important to realize that everyone errs and that occasionally behaving in a hurtful way doesn’t make someone a bad person; it just makes them human.
But if truly at fault, some people may attempt to stave off guilt by rationalizing or minimizing the harmful effect that their actions had on others. More helpful, however, is an acknowledgment of the offense, accompanied by an apology if appropriate.
In the case of survivor’s guilt, or a person who tends to blame themselves for circumstances that are beyond their control, help often involves the person letting go of a false sense of responsibility for what happened, refraining from negative self-talk, and developing greater self-compassion. If you change your thoughts, you can change your emotions
When guilt surfaces because you are doing better than those around you, remind yourself of how proud, glad, and invested those who care for you are. As hard as it might be, your own failure will not make others who love you feel better about themselves. You need to gain your inspiration from the knowledge that your efforts are a tribute to them. And don’t get down on yourself if you can’t reach your loftiest goals (or the ones they have or had for you) but at least know that you’re giving yourself the shot at success that they would want you to have.
If you are prone to feeling the unhealthy kind of guilt—in which you are always beating yourself up for not doing enough—use the tips and tools below, develop by Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., to set yourself free. It takes a lot of practice and deliberate re-thinking to change an entrenched pattern of guilt, so be patient.
- Look for the evidence.
If you feel guilty because you’re “not doing enough” for your kids, partner, or family, list all the things that you regularly do for them. Then, keep the list in your purse or wallet to pull out when guilt rears its head.
- Be direct and get more information.
Ask the people you think you’re neglecting whether they feel neglected. Consider whether they have a tendency to expect too much and not take enough responsibility for themselves (e.g., teenagers who expect you to pick up after them). Then, think about how an outside observer would view the situation. If you conclude that you really aren’t doing enough, then come up with some solutions or compromises that balance everybody’s needs.
- Appreciate yourself and all that you do.
Write a “self-gratitude” diary at the end of every day, noting at least three things you did that day that furthered your goals or helped someone you care about. At the end of the week, read what you’ve written. Guilt and perfectionism have a negative bias. They make you pay attention to what you’re not doing right. By writing down what you did, you can overcome this bias and force yourself to focus on your accomplishments.
- Think how you would see things if the roles were reversed.
Would you think your friend or partner wasn’t doing enough, given all they had going on? We often find it easy to be compassionate and understanding with others but are too harsh on ourselves. By deliberately taking the other person’s perspective, you’ll likely see your situation in a more objective light
- Curb the “black and white” thinking.
Are you thinking about the situation in all-or-nothing terms? Do you think that if you’re not the perfect partner (or daughter, or parent) you must be the worst one on the planet? Try to find the gray amid all that black and white. Consider other ways of seeing the situation. Try to judge your efforts in context, rather than always expecting perfection.
- Look for the emotions underneath the guilt.
Might the guilt be masking other feelings like anger, intimidation, or resentment? If you’re in a relationship with a very needy person or a narcissist, you or your partner may convince you that you’re being selfish by setting limits and saying no. Over time, your guilt and inner conflict may be masking resentment.
- Decide how much you’re willing and able to do.
If you honestly feel that you haven’t done enough for your partner or family member, then make an authentic commitment to take specific caring or helpful actions going forward. If you can’t do all the housework in the evening, decide which pieces you can commit to doing. Then, communicate this willingness to your partner in a proactive way.
- Realize it’s okay to take care of your own needs.
Some of us were the family peacemakers who took care of others all the time. Perhaps you had an alcoholic parent who was incapable of properly taking care of you. As an adult, you may still silence your own needs or feel they are less valid than those of your partner, child, or friend. But you don’t have to let this reaction to past trauma shape your relationships in the present.
Guilt is a useless emotion—useless because we don’t need to feel bad about ourselves to take corrective actions. Guilt is useless for three basic reasons:
- You can’t change the past, no matter how long or how often you practice feeling guilty.
- Rehashing guilt-arousing thoughts in your mind keeps you locked in the past, rather than focused on the present.
- Feeling guilty does not help you correct troubling behavior because you expend your mental energies putting yourself down rather than learning to change your behavior.
In cases where guilt is driven by a mental health issue, it is important to seek professional help. Sometimes treating the underlying concern can alleviate strong feelings of guilt or shame.
The Spiritual Person Attempts a Greater Goal
Each person is at a different place in their spiritual journey and this can be seen in how seriously they attempt to fulfill the teachings of Jesus or their spiritual mentor.
The Ten Commandments alone are a challenge. How often do we hear someone exclaim “Oh my God”, or work on Sunday or wish we had a house as nice as so-and-so?
Additionally Jesus asked much more of us; to be humble, generous and merciful, to love our enemies and not resist insult, to not worry ourselves or judge others, and much more – traits we should strive for and the basis for the thinking that we are all sinners. But only Christ and spiritual icons can surpass this threshold.
So these values increase the number of things to possibly feel guilty about. Fortunately, with the help of the Holy Spirit (and possibly some of the helpful hints above) we can reduce our offenses and be forgiven for those for which we feel regret or remorse.
What Did Jesus Say About Guilt?
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore, if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. (Mat 5:23-25)
Here Jesus shifts from the external meaning of the law against murder (6th commandments) to the inner attitude of the heart. Hatred and insult toward another are as serious violations of God’s will as the act of murder. It is God’s intention that people become reconciled. To support this, he introduces a parable indicating the wisdom of ingratiating oneself with one’s accuser while they are on their way to court. This could also be a metaphor suggesting how much more a follower should be reconciled with others before their time of judgement.
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again, He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” (John 8:1-11)
In this passage the Pharisees are attempting to trap Jesus into putting himself in conflict with either the Romans (who said only they could carry out a death sentence) or the Jews (because the law of Moses required stoning in this situation). Jesus’ answer avoids the trap by turning the question into a moral challenge to those who are willing to play politics with this woman’s sin and misery.
Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, not to condemn them but to offer God’s forgiveness and acceptance. The story certainly does not mean that Jesus condoned sin. His clemency and compassion indicated his concern for the motives of the woman’s accusers.
We can imagine ourselves in the role of the woman and in the role of the Pharisees. As the woman we have received forgiveness but are told to “sin no more”. As the Pharisees we are reminded that we are no more perfect than the woman and should treat others as we would wish to be treated.
If you found this post interesting, inspiring, informative, or useful, please follow us and share. Many more posts to feed your soul can be found on the Navigation menu. God bless you.
Guy Winch in Psychology Today
Adapted from The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity by Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D.
“The Definitive Guide to Guilt” Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Psychology Today
Understanding the New Testament by F.F. Bruce