G is for: A to Z of Emotional Health & Wellbeing

Angela continues with her A to Z of Emotional Health and today is a good one – G is for guilt.  I am sure this is one we will all relate to.

G is for Guilt

Have you ever felt guilty? Of course you have. Most of the time this will be because of a justifiable reason, you said or did something that has created a sense of guilt within you. But what about those times when you have feelings of guilt with no justifiable cause, you feel guilty for not doing something for someone that you are unable to do, or aren’t prepared to do.

But what is guilt, where does it come from, is it a justified response and what can you do to stop it taking over your life?  These are the things I am hoping to tackle in this post.

Guilt can quickly kick in for what can seem the smallest, most meaningless things in our lives.

G is for GuiltBecoming a parent is often when it becomes even more noticeable, become a parent of a child with additional needs and the effect can be even greater.  Should, woulds, oughts and coulds if not tackled can become everyday factors in life and then potentially take over our sense of self. We risk becoming a person we don’t recognize, This might be perhaps because of the additional responsibility we experience as SN parents, the mammoth amount of strength we have to find to ensure that those that have a responsibility to our child, meet that responsibility, (that is often a real tough one) and of course there is the self- pressure we apply, I know I’ve done it on countless occasions – Was I good enough, did I say the ‘right’ things, what can I do better, what did I forget?

It is important to remember though that why it happens will be different for everyone.

Feeling bad is different from feeling guilty – If you have experienced lots of projected emotion throughout your life then it might be that you are feeling unjustly bad about yourself.

How we learn to experience guilt is often developed during childhood – As a warning sign that tells us we need to adapt our responses in some way or another – usually because we are told by another person, a parent, relative, teacher or neighbor… that what happened or what we said was unkind or how we behaved needs to change – Our internal indicator will kick in and often a feeling of guilt (or sometimes shame and humiliation) for the other person is experienced. If we are able to deal with this and adapt our behaviour then there are often no long term effects. However, depending on how this is dealt with and the circumstances upon which it happens can alter our sense of guilt into adulthood.

If we have particularly shaming experiences from adults around us (and this can be any adults or even other children), and for example you re told that ‘you never consider other people’, ‘your are a selfish person’, ‘why do you ALWAYS do that’ ‘Goodness what an ungrateful child you are’…have been abused in anyway or have difficulties in learning signals from others this can change how we understand guilt and how we then go on to experience it as an adult. This can lead on to some people to develop a hypersensitivity to making mistakes, whereby mistakes are not allowed or they can become a magnet to other peoples’ emotions and begin taking responsibility for them – This is something that might be considered as false guilt. Having to make everything right for everyone and then feeling guilty when understandably this does not happen.  No-one can be responsible for everyone.

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

  1. Recognising your guilt and its’ origins.

As written above the aim of guilt generally is to help us grow emotionally when our actions or words have been offensive or hurtful to others or ourselves. If we feel guilty for saying something offensive to another person, or for becoming over focused on something other than those that need us (for example working long hours or becoming absorbed in a hobby and ignoring immediate family), that’s a warning sign with a purpose: change your behaviour or else lose your friends or family. We can still choose to ignore our guilt then, but then we do so at our own risk. This is known as  “appropriate” guilt because what is happening is within our awareness, however you are choosing not to change that behaviour despite its presence trying to help redirect our moral or behavioral compass.

Problems arise when our behavior isn’t something that needs re-examining, nor is it something that needs to be changed. For example, the choice of breast or bottle feeding  or returning to work after having a baby can evoke feeling of guilt as there may be fear it may cause unknown damage to their child’s development. This is simply not the case in most situations, however, and most children go on to develop well even when both parents work and generally there are no ill effects irrespective of how you choose to feed your baby. There’s nothing to feel guilty about, and yet we still do. This is known as “false” or “inappropriate” guilty because it serves no rational purpose.

Appropriate guilt could also be experienced if you eat a whole 200 gram bar of dairy milk, that’s your brain’s way of trying to get the message to you about a behavior you probably already recognise is a little extreme. Such behavior may be self-destructive and ultimately harmful to your health and well-being. Therefore your brain Is trying to deliver a message to you by way of guilt that doing this is not rational and to try and convince you to change this behavior.

 2.  Address what is causing the guilt

If your guilt is for a specific and rational purpose – e.g., it’s appropriate guilt (You’ve said something or behaved in a way that is unkind or inappropriate) – then do something about it – take action to fix the problem. By taking action it allows the problem to be ‘put to bed’ No longer there to dwell on.  If it means making an apology then do it, If it means broaching a difficult question then do it (rehearse what you want to say with a friend first) and if you can’t say it then write it down and send it.  What is the worst that can happen – Well you might be told to ‘poke off’ but if that is the case then even that can allow you to move on, however my experience is that the majority of people welcome making peace.  They may have something to share with you about how what happened impacted them and it is at this point that it may be time to listen and reflect.

Appropriate 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.) While sometimes we already know the lesson guilt is trying to teach us, it will return time and time again until we’ve actually learned the lesson fully. It can be frustrating, but it seems to be the way guilt works for most people. The sooner we “learn the lesson” – e.g., make amends, actively do not engage in the same hurtful behavior in the future, etc. – the sooner the guilt will disappear. If successful, it will never return for that issue again.

 3.  Accept you did something wrong, but move on.

If you did something wrong or hurtful, accepting that you that you cannot change the past is a step towards alleviating that feeling although as stated above you can make amends for your behavior, if and when it’s appropriate. Apologise and let it go and try to do so in a timely way. Doing nothing can interfere with how we feel about ourselves and others and it can turn into resentment.

If you feel you have dealt with the incident by genuinely apologising and moving on but the other party is seemingly holding a grudge then chances are this is no longer about you and what happened but more about them and it might be that they need to seek additional support in dealing with what happened.

 4.  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 behavior, 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) apologize 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 behavior (e.g., it’s inappropriate guilt), then this is different. Instead of learning how to change that behavior, a person can instead try to understand why a simple behavior most people wouldn’t feel guilty about is making you feel guilty. For example, I felt guilty for not getting all the housework done today, however both myself and my husband work and it is school holidays so it isn’t just my responsibility.  However because I was raised in a household where women did the domestic chores I am still left with a nagging sense of guilt for not being able to do everything – Ridiculous but very present for me. By being aware of it though it limits the amount of time I spend dwelling or over analysing my feelings about it.

 5.  Perfection is non-existent.

No one is perfect, not our friends not our family members and not anyone who appears to lead perfect, guilt-free lives. Aiming for perfection in any part of our lives is a recipe for failure. It is unobtainable.

Making mistakes is human and it keeps us real.  Feeling guilty about making a mistake can possibly suggest that you are walking the path of perfection.  This is where should woulds coulds and oughts can kick in and therefore need a huge kick in the opposite direction.  and many of us go down a path in our lives that can make us feel guilty later on when we finally realize our mistake. The key, however, is to realize 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 am I. That’s just life.

  1. Tell yourself you are good enough.

Are you feeling unable to move on with your life or do you constantly berate yourself, if you do the latter It is time to ask yourself some tough questions – Have a read about my post on critisicm and give your inner critic a good talking to.  Otherwise you could be experiencing something called false guilt. False guilt operates differently than true guilt

False guilt is a tendency to feel guilty even though you have not violated your values. You feel bad even though you have done nothing wrong. How is this possible?

To understand the purpose of false guilt, we need to realize the outcome of the guilt. What do we do or fail to do because of it? Then, we will be able to deduce its purpose.

Because of false guilt, you might find you:

  •  Avoid doing things for yourself, even though they take care of others
  •  Find it hard to be close to people because you don’t feel worthy
  • Fear of having an opinion.
  •  Explode with defensiveness when feeling accused of something.
  •  Feel that others are constantly judging you
  •  Have a tendency to self-sabotage your success

It is an unconscious way of never meeting your own needs due to experiencing a feeling that has been impressed upon you rather than an actual reaction to something current that has happened – It is similar to being trapped in the past and living todays life with the pasts

Don’t let yourself be trapped by guilt appropriate or inappropriate. Let go of the past, revisit and rectify what you can and accept what you can’t.

Live for all the todays you have.



Debs Aspland

Mum to three great kids, each with a different SEN. Transplanted from the NW to the SE. Co-founder and Director of Bringing Us Together

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