Why We Feel Guilty
As a counsellor I see many people who suffer from guilt. Guilt ultimately leads to symptoms of depression and anxiety resulting in poor self esteem.
Would you believe me if I told you that “guilt” is the most misused emotion? Well, it is true, and I will explain why.
As humans, we are constantly thinking and evaluating. For example, studies suggest we have over 6000 thoughts on a average day. We are not conscious of many of these thoughts and as a result, we respond reactively. We fail to recognize that it is our thoughts that determine our feelings, conscious of them or not. Our feelings then dictate our behaviours, and the behaviours result in consequences.
Guilty as Charged!
“Guilty” is a judicial term meaning “the intent to harm”. A person found guilty in a court of law is sentenced to a period of immobilization. This may include having to pay a fine, follow a curfew, be on probation, or incarceration. During this sentence, the guilty person is monitored and must follow court ordered rules limiting their freedom. The concept of “guilt” was designed in the judicial system for those found guilty to experience consequences of this guilt.
Have You Committed a Crime?
What is interesting is that when we misuse the guilt emotion, we too are immobilized by the very thing that is causing our feeling of guilt. We suffer self-imposed consequences, which ultimately increases our feelings of guilt. The problem with incorporating guilt into everyday situations is the feeling produces the same result – an inability to do something which causes more feelings of guilt. It is a vicious cycle.
So how can we know if guilt is real or distorted? Simply ask yourself if it was your intention to harm and if the answer is “no” you must change the way you see the situation.
How to Bust the Guilt Trap
For example, if you think you should telephone your elderly mother everyday but fail to, you feel guilty. The more guilty you feel, the less often you call your mother (immobilization). As a result, you judge yourself more horribly.
If your goal is to call your mother:
- stop “shoulding” yourself and change the “should” thought to a “want” statement – “I want to call my mom today”.
- If you do not get around to calling her instead of thinking “I should be calling”, change your thought to “I wish I had called”. The feeling from the “wish” statement generates more accurate, less painful feelings, which will not lead to symptoms of depression or anxiety. It will also more likely result in you calling your mother, because you are not immobilized by guilt.
Eliminating “should, shouldn’t, must, ought to and have to” from your thinking will reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, shame, fear and guilt.
Call Us for Help
This is one of many distorted thoughts that potentially cause us unnecessary distress. If you need help busting the guilt trap or any other distressing thought habits, we are here to help. Don’t hesitate to contact us.