We need some kinds of guilt to keep from making mistakes, but
unhealthy guilt keeps us from functioning as well as we should.
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As a recovering perfectionist, I might have titled this article “Therapist Heal Thyself” because I know a LOT about guilt. I’ve spent many hours in and out of therapy in an attempt to get out from under the burden of guilt I had piled upon myself. So I want you to know that I’m talking about a phenomena that applies to me as much as it does to clients — and maybe, just maybe, it’s possible, feasible, likely, and just a little probable that it applies to you as well.
While it is true that often one shouldn’t feel guilty because “after all, you did the best you could,” such an attitude can also perpetuate the don’t-blame-me-it-was-society’s-fault that is used as an excuse for crimes both petty and serious.
Some Common Varieties of Guilt
1. The most basic guilt is what I call “essential guilt” because it arises from disobeying commonly recognized codes of behavior. In fact, these are also written into the basic laws of civilized society and appear in various forms in all religions. Murder is wrong. Stealing is wrong. Rape is wrong. Greed is wrong. Even the survival of the human race depends in large measure upon the guilt felt by those who break these basic constraints on behavior. Unfortunately, we are living in a when too few people are sufficiently influenced by this kind of guilt.
2. The second kind of guilt is “deserved guilt.” This is not nearly as drastic as the first kind, it is also related to the responsibility we have toward others. For example, when you cheat on your income tax, you feel guilty (or at least you SHOULD feel some discomfort if your conscience is working at all!). Or you get a sinking in the pit of your stomach when you are enjoying yourself, several hours away from home, and suddenly realize you forgot to feed the dog. So there is good reason for this kind of guilt. If everyone could easily ignore this kind of guilt, our infrastructure would be in worse shape than it is because there wouldn’t be enough taxes to repair our roads and pets would miss more than an infrequent meal. In fact, smooth-running relationships are oiled, in part, because we know that we’d experience at least a modicum of guilt if we overlooked our obligations to others.
3. The third kind of guilt is “self-generated guilt.” Examples of this would be the unease caused by such things as self-imposed deadlines, which I am extremely competent in generating, and the nagging feeling you SHOULD have finished that project you started months (or years) ago. There is value to this guilt as well. Consider, for example, what happens if you tell an acquaintance that you will have her over for lunch soon, but then never get around to it. Whether or not you feel guilty — and whether or not the guilt is appropriate — will depend upon the reason you failed to do so.
On the one hand, you may have used “lets-do-lunch” to give her the impression that you are friendly, although you didn’t expect to actually follow through. Maybe you offer that invitation freely to lots of people without much intention of doing it. Now you’ve heard she’s hurt because she’s taken the lack of a definite date for lunch as indication that you don’t like her, or even worse, that she’s unlikeable. You feel guilty — rightly so — about deceiving her. On the other hand, you may genuinely be unable to take the time because of a long, drawn-out problem within your family or at work. Even though she’s hurt, you do best to deal with the guilt you may feel in disappointing her by simply giving her a call and explaining that when life is easier, you WILL get together, if in fact you will actually do it.
Self-generated guilt requires you to become conscious of HOW you got yourself into a guilt-producing situation in the first place. Taking an honest, thorough look at your role in the situation can help you avoid making the same error in the future.
4. The fourth kind of guilt is “borrowed guilt,” i.e., anxiety, which ranges from a vague uneasiness to a serious case of the shakes when you don’t do something you think you SHOULD do, simply because you were told – probably many years ago – that “good” people didn’t do such-and-such or that no one in your family would ever __________________ . (To get an idea for creation of this kind of guilt, just fill in the blank with anything you’ve done that feels just fine to you, and isn’t illegal or immoral, but which your parents or teachers would not have approved of.)
5. The fifth kind of guilt is what I call “hindsight guilt.” This can be the heaviest guilt of all, because it comes from the impossible belief that we SHOULD have known how to prevent something that we had no way of knowing how to prevent or from the assumption that we SHOULD have known how to handle a situation we previously had no opportunity to learn how to handle any differently. Sure, we know now what we would have done, but now wasn’t then.
Recognizing the difference between these five kinds of guilt is frequently difficult. That’s because guilt-creating situations give us an uncomfortable gut feeling which the body simply identifies as a blanket feeling we label “guilt.” Therefore, a well-deserved guilt sensation can feel an awfully lot like borrowed guilt — and vice versa. Perhaps this is why the psychiatrist Albert Ellis, who developed a school of psychology called Rational Emotive Therapy, says we “should” all over ourselves. The problem is in figuring out what to do about what kind of guilt we are experiencing.
Getting Rid of Unnecessary Guilt
So what’s the best way out of guilt that isn’t deserved? And what can you do with guilt you definitely deserve, but which has passed the statute of limitations and can no longer do you any good? I suggest the following:
1. Recognize that some guilt feelings are good for us. Therapy that focuses on “feeling good” may assure that we’ll repeat our mistakes, especially when dealing with other people and helpless animals. For example, I make a point of not relieving guilt of practicing alcoholics because they have to first learn the consequences of their actions before they can be motivated to change. As someone once said the role of a therapist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.
2. Examine the cause of self-generated guilt so that you can avoid putting yourself into those situations that might, once again, create guilt.
3. To help clear your conscience and clean up any misunderstanding, acknowledge to others that you’ve made a mistake. Even though “I made a mistake” and “I’m sorry” are two of the shortest sentences in the English language, they are also two of the most difficult for many people to speak. But when one has the courage to use them, they are extremely healing for both the person saying the words and the one listening.
4. Finally, forgive yourself. Learning how to do that is not nearly as difficult as you may have imagined. Further, once you have practiced it a few times, you are sure to agree that releasing guilt is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.