You could be feeling guilty for several reasons which may including thinking you are doing something bad, you did something bad, you didn’t do enough, survivor guilt and so on. How do you deal with each of these types or reasons?
What is the definition of guilt?
The dictionary defines guilt as “the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.” However, there is more to it than this.
Guilt is an equally awful and powerful feeling. Tony Robbins argues that “guilt tells you that you have violated one of your highest standards.”
While it can be healthy, by motivating you to live by your inherent values and standards thus improving your quality of life, it can also be detrimental and psychologically wearing.
When guilt becomes long-lasting, it can lead to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. It can also lead to low self-esteem and a negative self-perception.
Common as it is, it is also not very well understood, but below and the 5 main reasons people feel guilty.
You are thinking of doing something bad
Guilt is so powerful that simply thinking of doing something that violates your moral code, or even that of society, can eat at your conscience even if you have never actually committed the act.
You could be thinking of lying, being adulterous, committing an illegal act or anything else that you consider to be wrong or know that society does. Although you can always comfort yourself on not having have acted on your desire, your brain behaves as if you had, and your guilty conscience attacks.
This is especially true of thinking of engaging in acts that are taboo such as being homosexual a couple of decades ago. Some people felt so guilty at having these thoughts, they subjected themselves to harsh punishments such as self-flagellation, went to the church for exorcism and even underwent electric shock therapy to remove the urges.
How to stop feeling guilty for thinking of doing something bad
There are many natural responses to feeling this type of guilt.
- You can torture yourself or pray away the thoughts
- You can repress the thoughts
- You can deny that you are even having the thoughts
These methods only serve to keep you in discord with your actual feelings which rarely leads to anything but more suffering. The best way to deal with these thoughts is to accept them and in turn, accept yourself. This is known as acceptance and commitment therapy.
When you accept that you are feeling this way and thinking of doing this thing, then you can consciously figure out a way to deal with them. A problem in the shadows is bigger than a problem in the light.
You did something bad…
When we do something, we consider to be bad, we are overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. This is actually your mind’s way of letting you know when you’ve crossed the boundaries.
It could be that you lied, stole, or cheated. Or it could be that you caused others harm either physically, psychologically or emotionally. When you break one of your moral rules, the psychological pain you suffer is intense.
In this case, feeling guilty is a normal and correct reaction. It shows that you suffer remorse for your wrong actions. In fact, only psychopaths don’t feel it when they have done something that they shouldn’t have.
Letting go of guilt for doing something bad
Although it is appropriate to feel bad for breaking your moral code, when you mire yourself in guilt over the action/s, then you create more problems. The past is done and gone and there is nothing you can do to change it.
First, acknowledge and accept your mistake.
Second, apologize if you hurt someone else. Apology allows you to take responsibility and to also clear your conscience. Apologize to yourself too if you did wrong to you.
Lastly, learn from your mistake and determine to never do the same again.
You didn’t do enough…
In a world where there is always so much demanded of us and with hindsight to contend with, people are often overwhelmed by the things they didn’t do. These feelings persist even when they logically know that at the time, it would have been impossible.
Mothers are a great example of a group of people who often feel guilty for not doing enough to protect their children from harm even if they did all they could. They are also experts at making their children feel guilty for not doing enough.
No matter who you are, at some point or other, you are going to feel guilty for not doing all that you could. It’s easy to feel this way when looking back at something with the benefit of hindsight.
How to stop it when it is from not doing enough
First accept that you did your best with the information you had at the time and resolve to do better in the future.
If you take stock and come to the conclusion that you really could have done better, then take note and resolve to improve in the future.
Guilt for something that happened to you
This is an inverse type of guilt where someone who has been harmed in some way, feels responsible for it and thus feels guilty.
For example, victims of rape or abuse often feel ashamed and guilty. This is often because they feel as if they were responsible in some way. Maybe if they hadn’t dressed like that or gone down that street at night or said or done that thing they said they did.
Dealing with guilt for something that happened to you
This is a sensitive situation but it is important to remember first and foremost that this thing happened to you, and you didn’t cause it. You are not responsible or to blame.
This can be admittedly difficult so often times it is necessary to seek professional help.
This is the form of guilt where a person survives something others haven’t. It is common among war veterans who see many of their fellow troops die. Friends and family members of those who have died often suffer from this feeling as well. Even people who survive an incident where others die suffer from survivor’s guilt.
On another scale, succeeding where those close to a person don’t can create a form of survivor’s guilt, where the person feels at fault for having have made it and left their friends or family behind.
Lastly is where one’s actions directly lead to the injury or harm of others where they remain unscathed or not badly hurt. For example, if one leaves the gas on by mistake and starts a fire that kills people.
How to stop feeling guilty for surviving
In the case of surviving a death, remember that it is not your fault. Things happen that are out of our control. While you can’t bring them back to life, you can lead a worthwhile life on their behalf.
Also, remember that your loved ones would want the best for you and would want you to succeed. Doing so would help you raise their standard of living where it is necessary. When it comes to friends who haven’t succeeded where you have, offer them encouragement, don’t be condescending and realize that we each have our own journey.
Where your unintended actions cause direct harm to others, realize that you didn’t mean to and try to forgive yourself.
When suffering survivors guilt, it’s important to give back or do something meaningful for others. This doesn’t erase what has happened but it helps one to look forward to the future.
You think you did something bad
Because experiences are subjective, we often carry completely false and irrational ideas of things we have done and how they affect those around us. The belief that you did something wrong or something to hurt someone else is almost as guilt-inducing or even more so than if you actually had done it.
How to deal with guilt for something you think you did
The only way to deal with this type of guilt is to face it head-on. Instead of beating yourself up for something you didn’t even do, find out if you did. Ask the person if they were offended or apologize for what you think you did. Having this out in the open helps to discern what did and didn’t happen and allows you to find a way to remedy the situation where you actually did offend someone.