Feeling guilty is the worst thing you can do if you want to change .
‘I had two affairs. The first time, I blamed my wife. She ignored me, never said anything nice, just nagged and nagged. When I got involved with another woman, it felt good because she was giving me compliments and appreciating me. Once I got found out, I realised the impact my actions had on my family – not just my relationship with my wife, but the effect on my kids who had to live in our house which was now full of tension and sadness. That was when the guilt really kicked in. I beat myself up way more than anybody else ever could. I’d lie awake at night, thinking about how much I’d fucked up and not really sure how, or if, it could be fixed. The heaviness of it, the way it pulled me away from the present with constant intrusive thoughts about what I’d done, was horrible. And I found that the only thing that could take the guilt away was to lose myself in a new relationship. The physical intensity of it was distracting, and with her, I could pretend I hadn’t made all these mistakes. I didn’t have to show her that I was sorry by beating myself up. I could take a break from feeling bad and trying to fix something I didn’t know how to fix. It was a relief, but of course it was just making the problem worse. When my wife found out about the second affair, she left me. ‘
Everyone knows the feeling of guilt. Connected to shame, it’s first experienced in childhood. As children, we have to be taught what is right and wrong, and we quickly learn to punish ourselves for potential wrong actions in an attempt to control our behaviour to fit our parent’s (and societies) expectations. When guilt stops us from acting in a way we’d regret later, it’s a useful emotion. But guilt after the fact can actually lead to more of the problem behaviour, as you can see from David’s story above.
When guilt is good
If guilt stops you from hurting another or yourself, it’s useful.
In this context, guilt helps to maintain general social order (you watch yourself instead of needing other people to constantly watch you and correct your behaviour). It helps us to maintain as many connections with others as possible, connections which are sincere and honest and create deep relationships. Feeling safe enough to expose who you are with another is important to most people, and it’s easier to take that leap and become vulnerable with others if you’re not feeling terrible about who you are and what you’ve done recently.
Guilt is also somewhat useful if it motivates you to become a better person. For some people, feeling guilty leads to action, and then that action makes you feel better. For example, once you know about the way animals are raised for food, you might feel guilty when you eat meat. So you eat less meat, and feel better about yourself because you’ve made a compassionate choice. Of course, it’s also possible to take action without feeling guilty, so it’s not ideal! But it can work, particularly if other motivators aren’t working.
Guilt gone bad
Guilt is not useful when:
It stops us from moving forward.
Guilt can quickly become paralysing. We feel so bad about ourselves that taking action to remedy the situation becomes too hard. Guilt destroys our sense of self-confidence and confidence is what allows us to do what is good for us in the long term. Ever had thoughts like this:
I shouldn’t have eaten that. I feel so bad. What’s wrong with me? I have no willpower. I’ll never change. Might as well eat some more.
This kind of thinking, where you go from doing something you don’t like, to repeating the action out of a sense of futility, is a common experience. Stuff up – feel guilty - become unable to change because you feel so bad and are thinking so negatively– stuff up more cycle often underpins actions like serial cheating, going further into debt, and comfort eating.
You can’t take action to alleviate it.
Once something has been done, it can’t be undone. If you allow yourself to dwell upon what you’ve done wrong without taking action to change it somehow, you’ll quickly end up depressed – no matter what your life looks like. This is because you’re focussing on how powerless you are, alongside living inside a negative feeling. If it goes on too long, you’re mood will drop, and you can easily feel helpless and hopeless – key defining characteristics of depression.
If you’re feeling guilty, what can you do?
Getting Past Guilt
Do what you can to repair any damage or to prevent future damage.
You might need to apologise, come clean, buy a new one. You might need to donate money to charity. If you have acted in a way you’re not proud of, focus very clearly on what you can do differently to prevent it from happening again, rather than focussing on feeling bad. You need to find and work on what’s in your power to change, as soon as possible, rather than wallowing. So if you ate the cake, then get out and go for a run now! Delete the number of that friend you secretly think might want more – right now. If you spent too much, take the stuff back or cut up the credit card right now. If you can think of something to do, do it! Do it quickly, before the guilt paralyses you from useful action and you end up creating more of what you don’t want.
Sometimes, letting it go is actually the kindest thing to do. It might seem like a cop out, but making yourself feed bad doesn’t actually make other people (or animals, or the planet) feel any better. Feeling bad limits positive action and can bring about more of what you don’t want. So, forgive yourself. You’re human. You’re not Vegan/Mother/Lover/Employee/ Entrepreneur of the Year. You have a chaotic, destructive side. That’s alright!
You can do this by writing ‘I forgive myself for…’ and then writing down whatever you’d like to release. Symbolically destroy it/ say goodbye to it (burn it, rip it, delete it) and then go and take an action that is actually helpful (see above), to ward off guilt quickly sneaking in.
Does guilt control you? Don’t let it have that power any longer - book a session with me.
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.