Do You Know Enough About Guilt So It’s Not Holding You Back?

Guilt is an emotional state where we experience conflict at having done something that we believe we should not have done (or conversely, having not done something we believe we should have done). This can give rise to a feeling state which does not go away easily and can be difficult to endure.

If you are experiencing feelings of guilt you are likely to be focussing on something that you have done that is embarrassing, harmful to another person, or some other behaviour which has contributed to negative consequences for you or someone else. Sometimes this feeling of guilt can become so big that you may feel overwhelmed and do not have a way to manage the intensity of your feelings.

Guilt and shame are similar emotions in that both involve feeling bad about oneself. Guilt is generally associated with something one has done (or not done). Shame, on the other hand, is often experienced as a feeling of being a bad, unworthy, hateful person. When shame becomes deep-rooted and generalised to who one is, it is a very destructive, painful emotion.

It’s amazing how quickly guilt can kick in for the smallest, most meaningless things in our lives. Guilt is an emotional warning sign that most people learn through their normal childhood social development. Its purpose is to let us know when we’ve done something wrong, to help us develop a better sense of our behaviour and how it affects ourselves and others. It prompts us to re-examine our behaviour so that we don’t end up making the same mistake twice.

Unhealthy guilt

Unhealthy guilt does not allow for mistakes; we expect too much from ourselves and others. Guilt is unhealthy if it is out of proportion or causes acute distress. Unhealthy guilt can arise because of:

A clash between value systems. For example, some cultures have very strict rules about sexual behaviour, however, mainstream Australian culture is relatively relaxed in its approach to sex. A person who grows up in Australia but whose parents are from another culture might feel guilt about their own sexual behaviour as a result of the clash between cultural value systems.

Excessively harsh or abusive discipline. If rules of behaviour have been enforced abusively or with excessive force, the fear of punishment can be internalised as a high degree of guilt.

Unrealistic standards of behaviour.

Nobody is perfect. If you expect never to feel angry, always to tell the truth and never to have a mean thought about anyone, then you are likely to feel guilty a lot of the time.

An act believed to be wrong which has not been confessed or atoned for. Sometimes we do things which we later feel guilty about. If the guilt is severe enough, we may feel afraid to tell anyone or to make amends for it. This can lead to an unhealthy state of guilt and anxiety.

What can guilt do to you?

Make you become over responsible, striving to make life ‘right’. You may overwork, give too much of yourself, or be willing to do anything in an attempt to make everyone happy .

Make you over-conscientious. You may fret over every action you take as to its possible negative consequence to others, even if this means that you must ignore your needs and wants.

Make you over sensitive. You may see decisions about right and wrong in every aspect of your life and become obsessed with the tenuous nature of all your personal actions, words and decisions.

Immobilise you. You can become so overwhelmed by the fear of doing, acting, saying, or being ‘wrong’ that you eventually collapse, give in, and choose inactivity, silence, and the status quo.

Interfere in your decision making. It may become so important to always be ‘right’ in your decisions that you are unable to make a decision lest it be wrong.

Be hidden by the mask of self denial.

You may hide behind the mask of self denial because it is less guilt-inducing to take care of others first. You honestly believe it is better to serve others first, unaware that ‘guilt’ can be the motivator for such ‘generous’ behaviour.

Make you ignore the full array of emotions and feelings available to you.

Overcome by guilt or the fear of it, you can become emotionally blocked or closed off and unable to enjoy the positive fruits of life, your attention always being with the negative.

Mislead or misdirect you. As many irrational beliefs lie behind guilt, you may be unable to sort out your feelings. It is important to be objective with yourself when you are experiencing guilt so that your decisions are based on sound, rational thinking.

Be a motivator to change.

Guilt and the discomfort it brings can be used as a barometer of the need for change and a way to move in a different direction in your life.

How can we help combat our guilty feelings, accept them when they’re important, but let them go more easily when they’re not?

Recognize the kind of guilt you have and its purpose.

Guilt works best to help us grow and mature when our behaviour has been offensive or hurtful to others or ourselves. If we feel guilty for saying something offensive to another person, or for focusing on our careers by working a 60-hour week over spending time with our family, that’s a warning sign with a purpose: change your behaviour or else risk damaging or losing important relationships.

We can still choose to ignore our guilt, but then we do so at our own risk. This is known as “healthy” or “appropriate” guilt because it serves the purpose of trying to help redirect our behavioural compass.

The problem arises when our behaviour isn’t something that needs re-examining, nor is it something that needs to be changed. For example, a lot of first-time mothers feel badly about going back to work part-time, fearful it may cause unknown damage to their child’s normal development. That’s simply not the case in most situations and most children have a normal, healthy development even when both parents work. There is nothing to feel guilty about, and yet we still do. This is known as “unhealthy” or “inappropriate” guilt because it serves no rational purpose.

Make amends or changes sooner rather than later.

If your guilt is for a specific and rational purpose – e.g., it’s healthy guilt – take action to fix the problem behaviour. While many of us are gluttons for self-punishment, ongoing guilt weighs us down as we try and move forward in life. It’s easy enough to apologise to someone whom we’ve offended by a careless remark. It’s a little more challenging to not only recognise how your 60-hour-a-week career may be harming your family, but to also change your work schedule (assuming that there were legitimate reasons for working 60-hours a week in the first place). Healthy guilt is telling us we need to do something different in order to repair relationships important to us (or our own self-esteem). Unhealthy guilt’s purpose, on the other hand, is only to make us feel badly for little legitimate reason.

Accept you did something wrong, but move on.

If you did something wrong or hurtful, you will have to accept that you cannot change the past but you can make amends for your behaviour, if and when it’s appropriate. Do so, apologise, or make-up for the inappropriate behaviour in a timely manner, but then let it go. The more we focus on believing we need to do something more, the more it will continue to bother us and interfere with our relationships with others.

Guilt is usually very situational. That means we get into a situation, we do something inappropriate or hurtful, and then we feel badly for a time. Either the behaviour wasn’t so bad or time passes, and we feel less guilty. If we recognize the problem behaviour and take action sooner rather than later, we’ll feel better about things (and so will the other person) and the guilt will be alleviated. Obsessing about it and not taking any type of compensatory behaviour (such as apologising, or changing one’s negative behaviour), keeps the bad feelings going. Accept and acknowledge the inappropriate behaviour, make your amends, and then move on.

Learning from our behaviours.

Guilt’s purpose isn’t to make us feel bad just for the sake of it. The feeling of guilt is trying to get our attention so that we can learn something from the experience. If we learn from our behaviour, we’ll be less likely to do it again in the future. If I’ve accidentally said something insulting to another person, my guilt is telling me I should (a) apologise to the person and (b) think a little more before I open my mouth.

If your guilt isn’t trying to correct an actual mistake you made in your behaviour (e.g., it’s unhealthy guilt), then there’s not a whole lot you need to learn. Instead of learning how to change that behaviour, you can instead try to understand why a simple behaviour most people wouldn’t feel guilty about is making you feel guilty. For instance, a person may feel guilty for spending some time playing a game during regular work hours. However, if they work for themselves, and don’t really keep “regular work hours,” they may have the mindset that was fashioned by years of of working for others, and no longer applies.

Perfection doesn’t exist in anyone.

Nobody is perfect, even our friends or family members who appear to lead perfect, guilt-free lives. Striving for perfection in any part of our lives is a recipe for failure, since it can never be attained. We all make mistakes and many of us go down a path in our lives that can make us feel guilty later on when we finally realise our mistake. The key is to realise the mistake and accept that you’re only human. Don’t engage in days, weeks or months of self-blame or battering your self-esteem because you should’ve known, should’ve acted differently, or should’ve been an ideal person. You’re not, and neither are others. That’s just life.

Guilt can be viewed as an attachment to judgment, and getting ‘things’ right. This attachment rather than making us more responsible and accountable to our thoughts, feelings and actions, makes us less so because it is an obstacle to authenticity. Feelings of guilt and shame are very hard to deal with, mainly because it requires that you forgive yourself for whatever happened.

Forgiving yourself requires honesty and self-acceptance. Clearing away the veil of guilt allows us to be more connected to what it is that we are experiencing, our thoughts and our actions in light of that experience and, thus, to be more present with our experience, our emotions and ourselves.

All of the above applies to everyday guilt and some trauma situations but in severe childhood trauma the guilt attached is far more severe and entrenched. In this instance intense Therapy is needed to deal with the guilt associated with the guilt and shame associated with the abuse.  Therapy can help survivors of abuse express and process difficult emotions associated with the abuse, develop self-compassion and self-care strategies for managing moments of emotional overwhelm, and learn to trust again.

Many therapeutic approaches can be beneficial for those who have experienced abuse, from narrative therapy to eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). In addition, therapy may employ mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, or experiential techniques such as the incorporation of art, journaling, or equine-assisted activities.Group therapy has demonstrated effectiveness in providing social support to help survivors of abuse cope with and transform their feelings of shame, guilt, and alienation from others as they interact and bond with other people who have lived through similar experiences. For those who fear the vulnerability and exposure they may experience in a group setting, working one-on-one with a therapist can be a more intimate and personalised experience.Childhood sexual abuse is considered one of the worst forms of trauma, and its effects, long term signs and symptoms are now found to span a large range of conditions documented in the psychiatric reference manual known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, (DSM-IV). Sexual abuse is considered “soul murder” as it literally robs the child victim of their innocence, severely disrupts their developing ego structure and sense of Self, and will later distort the then adult’s ability to function and to form healthy relationships with themselves and others.

Given a child is entirely dependent on adults for their safety, guidance and appropriate gestures of love and nurturance, it is easy to see how this vulnerable group can be targeted and abused.

Childhood sexual abuse appears to cut across all of societies demographics and socio-economic and religious groups, as well as geographic indicators, but some vocations such as clergy, doctors, teachers, day care workers, volunteer and youth group orders, are over represented as areas from which abusive environments and scenarios are acted out.

An adult survivor of child sexual abuse cannot be categorised in any way, such are the complex dynamics and deep trauma at work in this situation. Generally speaking, adults will normally have one of two postures towards life after such abuse, they will either collapse or they will attempt to rise above the abuse. The collapsed outcome is an adult who often has easily recognisable symptoms and problems that stop them from being functional in one or more areas of their life, often with depressive, or addictive, or victim status personas, or require ongoing medical assistance to cope with life.

The second outcome where one “rises above the abuse and its shame” are nominally those who dissociate from the abuse trauma, soldier on and are able to maintain for some time an intact functional life in work and social settings, but who often withdraw or have impairment issues in intimate relationships.

Adults who were sexually abused as children often are secretive and shame based and bare great guilt. This is often due to the dynamic in childhood where the adult abuser used threats and manipulation against the child in order to cover up and maintain the secret of the abuse.The abuser uses sophisticated grooming methods to elicit  guilt to bring the child under their control and ensure the child tells no one of their ‘secret’.  Children instinctively trust adults and get their cues, reality and guidance from the same adult that then abuses them. Common manipulation by the abuser of the child victim include  telling the child that they enjoyed their “game” and are responsible for what is being done to them.

Another common threat is that the other parent or other siblings will be hurt or killed if the victim tells anyone, or that they will be blamed or that no one will believe them. Some abusers play on the natural curiosity and tactile nature of the child and do not physically hurt the child. In these cases the child will ten grow up with guilt that “they enjoyed it” and therefore they are responsible or have guilt or shame over what happened. This too will tend to bind them to secrecy.

Sexual impulses in human are deep seated and the brain has 2 distinct pleasure centres in the brains which activate from sexual activity. Human beings will have regular sexual impulses throughout our lives from an early age as the brain develops in childhood.  Children do have their own infantile sexual urges which can put them at risk of abuse where adults around them do not contain these innocent urges or set appropriate boundaries for the child in a non threatening or shaming and guilty way.

Children do not have the concept of adult sexuality, nor are they able to give consent. Children who suffer sexual abuse often do not understand that what is being done to them is wrong and may be told by the adult abuser it is OK and natural. Children are very trusting and have a natural need for affection and approval. Children are often not able to say “No”, enforce “No” and may want love and survival needs from the very person who they need to say “No” to.

Children are in a power inequality bind, and so have very little power over what happens in an abuse situation as well as what happens in the rest of their lives. Children are trapped as they are commonly taught to obey adults, trust their parents and extended family, and to look to them for safety and guidance.  Extended family members are also not fully known to the parents who put trust on people they do not fully know. Children are sometimes preyed upon by trusted adults who are either socially or blood related to the primary family unit.

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