When I was in my 20’s I dated a DJ. He worked until 3 am in an after hours club. Meanwhile, I worked a regular 9 to 5 job.
The night that I broke up with him, he came to my apartment at 3:30 am begging me to let him in. The more I said no, the more insistent he became.
Finally, he implored, “Can you at least let me have a glass of water?” He may as well added a pejorative at the end of that sentence so admonishing was his tone.
That tone was his big mistake and my lifelong lesson.
Up until that moment, I had been feeling guilty. “Maybe I should let him in”, I thought. “Maybe he needs to talk”. “Maybe I’m being mean” “Maybe I’m not being fair”
But the moment he chastised me, it hit me:
- He’d come to my place at 3:30 in the morning
- He woke me up
- He couldn’t have cared less that I had a job to go to in a few hours
Plus, he was a new boyfriend, with whom I’d broken up, which I was perfectly entitled to do. Yet I was the one feeling guilty?
Since then, I’m rarely motivated by guilt.
If I feel the emotion, I question it. I ask myself if I am, indeed, guilty of wrongdoing. If I am, then I correct it and the guilt dissipates. If I’m not, then it still dissipates.
I have no time for lingering guilt. It’s the ultimate in self-harm.
Guilt has a purpose, but also a shelf life.
Guilt by manipulation
As evidenced by my boyfriend, guilt can be used to manipulate your behaviour. So before you feel guilty, ask yourself two questions:
- Are you guilty or are you not?
- Is feeling guilty in someone else’s best interest?
- Are you feeling coerced into doing something you don’t want to do?
Be careful not to fall victim to people who play victim. They pull on your heartstrings and leave you feeling as though you have some sort of responsibility to end their suffering. They might also leave you feeling as though you’ve done something wrong.
But again, question yourself. Pause and ask yourself if you are, in fact, guilty or not.
There’s a term call gaslighting in which a manipulative person makes you question yourself, your motives, actions and even your feelings.
How to tell if you’re being manipulated into feeling guilty?
It’s never their fault. It’s yours.
If you want to help someone, by all means do. But if you’re feeling resistance and guilt, then listen to yourself and not to them.
When guilt becomes your norm
If you feel guilt then congratulations, you’re not a sociopath!
Guilt begins with our thoughts. It arises when we think we’ve done something wrong. That “something” could be anything from we’ve caused others harm to we aren’t doing enough for others.
Guilt can be fleeting and simple. It can also overtake your soul, destroy your morale and set you up for a life of self-condemnation.
I had a client with tremendous self-esteem issues. Her mother had suffered eight miscarriages before my client came along. This created a dynamic between the two that led my client to believe she always had to prove her worth.
She was the one who lived, so she had better be worthy.
As such, she became a perfectionist and a workaholic. She worked overnights. She went to university by day. She graduated with honors. Ultimately, she became a international expert in her field.
Yet despite her efforts and her contribution to the world, she lived with the guilt of never doing enough and never being good enough.
Rather, I should say, she lived with the feeling of guilt. Was she actually guilty? Not in the least. That woman tried so hard to please it was heartbreaking.
In addition, because she carried such a heavy burden of guilt, she couldn’t bear criticism. Even constructive or fair criticism felt like yet more pressure to be perfect. It meant shouldering even more guilt for not being perfect.
We had to do a lot of work to uproot that deep and destructive sense of guilt. Hers was not an average case. Most people feel situational guilt. Nevertheless, any guilt that lingers is guilt that’s outdone is usefulness.
Guilt. Causes for it and control of it.
Guilt can grip us for a number of reasons. For some, the emotion is elicited by the same causes over and over again. Hence they’re fairly easy to identify, predict and prevent. For others, the causes differ and the guilt is felt with more regularity. Still others live with guilt.
Regardless of how guilt presents in each individual person, its causes are limited.
Causing harm to others or thinking you have
If you’re on the site of a self-development coach like me and you’re reading this article, I’m going to presume that you didn’t do something criminal or too damaging.
We all suffer from some degree of egocentricity. As such, we place much more emphasis on our behaviours than others do. Sometimes what you feel guilty about has had far less impact than you think.
Also, sometimes we think we’ve done something wrong, but haven’t. Either are perception is wrong or, as in the case of my ex-boyfriend, someone else’s perception is wrong.
Point is are you guilty or aren’t you? It’s worth asking yourself.
Also worth asking yourself is this all important question: Just how bad were you? Sometimes the guilt we feel and the punishment we cause ourselves is far out of proportion to what we did.
What to do if you’re guilty.
Say sorry, but say it properly.
Don’t say sorry, but. Your sorry has to come with a full stop. If the person involved chooses to be introspective about their role, that’s up to them.
Don’t say, I’m sorry you “feel as though”. True, you’re not responsible for how someone feels or reacts to the harm you’ve caused, but be gracious and absolute. Don’t add any ambiguity to your apology. Just say it and be direct.
Do make sure that you’re clear about what you’re apologizing for. Sounds elementary but as a communications expert, I truly believe we frequently miscommunicate, but given how much small talk we do, it rarely has consequences.
When apologizing though – and in emotional situations – miscommunication can escalate the issues.
Words carry nuances, as does one’s tone. Additionally what you say and how it’s received depends on all the individual particularities, the level of harm caused, as well as the relationship you have together.
So, do state what exactly you did wrong and apologize for it. Then tell the person what you’re going to do to prevent that from happening again.
It’s important to note that a mistake doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you a person who made a mistake. That’s a big difference.
What matters is how you handle them and grow from them.
Going against your values, morals, ethics or self
I had a client with an eating disorder. She’d binge, purge and then spend hours self-hating.
She called me once in a panic. She wanted to binge and didn’t know how to stop herself.
I started by saying that if she wants to, then she should. She had been struggling with the temptation for a couple of hours and all the struggle did was make the desire stronger. So, yes, I suggested that she give herself permission.
But I also suggested that, before going through with her binge, she might want to think about how she’ll feel after the binge. Will she feel satisfied? Will she be angry at herself? Will she be a bit of both?
In short, think of the outcome and determine if it’s worth it. If it is, then do it and accept it.
If you cause yourself harm without the benefit of advance self-reflection, then reflect after the fact.
Ask yourself why you harmed yourself? Are you angry at yourself? Are you sabotaging a situation? Are you suffering from addiction? We’re you trying to people please or fit in?
It’s not uncommon to experience guilt over something you’ve done to hurt yourself – whether it’s binging or going against a moral code like honesty. But if you don’t want to feel that guilt again, then get to the heart of what lead to your actions.
Sometimes it’s nothing more than situational. Other times it can be a personal flaw.
I’m a vegetarian because I love animals. I also love beauty. I saw a beautiful butterfly chair once and it was made of leather. I really wanted it. I convinced myself that the leather was a by-product of the meat industry.
In other words, the animal was killed for its meat and not for the leather. So I bought it. It’s a beautiful piece, but as soon as I saw it, I felt guilty. It’s a slab of leather. There’s no denying it.
I was selfish. I had compromised my values. I foolishly chose beauty over animal welfare. There was nothing I could do to change that. The chair wasn’t an item that could be returned.
But though I couldn’t change what I had done, I could commit to never, ever doing it again.
So do what you can to discover the cause. Pay attention to the circumstances and context of the cause and, that way, you can identify it before it happens again. Then make a commitment to yourself that you won’t let it happen again.
Treat yourself as you would anyone whom you respect by promising not to repeat the harm.
Once you’ve reflected and found ways to prevent yourself from repeating the same mistakes, forgive yourself.
If you do end up repeating your mistakes, then take the time to go through the entire exercise again. We don’t always manage to change behavior on the first try. What’s important is trying again.
Learn how to identify your values, live by them, and be happier for it.
Thinking about going against your values, ethics, morals or self.
It’s okay to have “bad” thoughts. Just don’t act on them if they’re going to harm you or others.
Don’t put yourself in situations that’ll tempt you either.
Rather than go through with what you’re thinking, stop and ask yourself why you’re having these thoughts.
Are you thinking of having an affair? Are you thinking of stealing money from work? Are you thinking of buying a leather butterfly chair?
Are the thoughts you’re having just harmless fun or are they alerting you to a deeper issue?
Thinking of doing something wrong isn’t the same as actually doing it.
First, be grateful that you caught the thought before putting it into action. Second, be grateful for the opportunity to have a chance to reflect.
Find out what’s at the heart of the thoughts. If you’re unhappy with a person or situation, then deal with the problem and the thoughts will likely dissipate.
Maybe you’re bored and looking for adventure? Then explore the idea of adventures that won’t go against your personal codes.
Whatever the root of the thoughts, you have a chance to explore, pinpoint and prevent. So don’t beat yourself up. Instead take that as a win.
Also recognize the value of guilt. It can alert you to opportunities for self-development.
Being an imposition
We all need help from others at some point in our lives, let alone in our days! No one lives independently. Yet, sometimes, we feel guilty about asking for help. We think we’re guilty of being weak, self-centered or imposing.
For one, no one’s obliged to say yes. So if you’ve asked for help and they agree to help, then you haven’t anything to feel guilty about.
I had an older client who regularly asked her younger neighbors for help. One day, they angrily refused and made it clear that she’d overstepped their boundaries. My client was mortified. She felt so guilty for what she had done to them.
She had done to them? Really?
From my point of view, they had done it to themselves. Rather than politely say no when they had reached a point of saturation. They kept saying yes until they finally reacted in anger. They were accountable for their behavior. She had nothing to feel guilty about.
If you do find yourself in a position to ask for help, and if it’s a big ask, you can always do something thoughtful in return. You can buy a bouquet of flowers, bake some fresh bread or simply send an old-fashioned thank you card.
Keep in mind that though you may find yourself needing help during a period of your life, it doesn’t mean you won’t have an opportunity to give back at another time.
If you tend to be a fairly thoughtful and helpful person, then try not to feel guilty when asking for help yourself.
If you don’t tend to be someone who gives, then I suggest you begin. Start being helpful to others and you won’t feel as guilty when you find yourself in need.
Not doing enough
Could you have done more? If you couldn’t then you have nothing to feel guilty about. It’s that simple.
I had a friend who became a serious alcoholic. I tried everything to help him. I gave him a list of AA meetings. I called his family to help. I called social services. I offered him rehab. I truly tried everything I could.
Plus I was trying to help him while looking after a parent who was undergoing treatment for cancer.
Eventually my friend died from complications of alcohol.
I felt so guilty. I was angry for not spotting the signs before it was too late. I was angry for not doing enough to stop his demise. But then it hit me – I had done my best. I loved my friend. I tried, but his needs were greater than my abilities.
There are so many situations where we kick ourselves for not coming through. Yet, no matter our best intentions, we simply can’t.
Sometimes too what’s being asked of us, or what we’re expecting of ourselves, is just not reasonable or appropriate.
So if you feel guilty for not doing enough, stop and consider the possibility that you did the best you could.
Doing better than someone else
Live is filled with ups and downs. Sometimes your life is on a high when the life of someone you love is on a low. The unfairness of it all can cause you to feel guilty and can dampen the enjoyment you would otherwise be feeling.
I remember going through some financial setbacks at a time when a friend was given a raise. Not only that, she won money! While I worried about making rent, she was feeling absolute peace.
Unfortunately, she also felt guilty around me. So much so that she didn’t want to share how happy she was. What she didn’t realize is that I too was happy for her.
If you’re going through an amazing stage in your life while someone’s going through a difficult one, don’t assume your joy will make them feel badly. It could just as easily make them happy. It could also give them hope.
You don’t have to shove it in their faces, but you don’t have to feel guilty about it either.
Life isn’t fair. All you can do is be grateful for what you have and do your best to contribute positively to the lives of others.
Surviving when others haven’t
People who survive a traumatic event or illness can feel guilty for surviving when others didn’t. Their guilt may include beliefs about what they did or didn’t do during the event.
They might feel guilty for not predicting or preventing the event.
Survivor’s guilt is often attached to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the treatment of which is beyond the scope of this article or my training as a coach. You’d be far better off seeking the help of a therapist. EDMR therapy has been very successful in treating PTSD. I went through it myself.
You can learn more about it on the American Psychological Association’s website.
A final note about guilt
If your goal is to manage guilt, here is a summary of steps:
- Be on alert for it
- Notice when it occurs and with whom
- Notice what increases and decreases
- Keep a record
- Track your progress
I strongly suggest you keep a journal.
Whether you live with guilt that’s situational but frequent, or chronic and generalized, it’s important to identify it as it occurs and not forget the circumstances around it.
If you live with chronic guilt, the feeling can become as familiar as breathing. You don’t even notice it. But you need to and that takes discipline.
More importantly, you need to pay attention to the thoughts that precede it.
A study conducted at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, suggests that the average person has 6,200 thoughts a day. Most of the time we don’t even realize the dialogue that goes on in our heads.
To suggest “pay attention”, especially if your guilt is chronic, is easier said than done. So rather than exhaust yourself by constantly focusing on your every thought, start small.
For generalized guilt, take a 5-minute break once or twice a day where you sit down and pay attention to what comes up. If you catch a thought that creates a feeling of guilt, write it down in a journal along with the context.
Situational guilt is important to record as well. When you catch it as it happens, take a moment to describe it in a journal.
If you don’t have a journal on hand, then send yourself a text or voice memo as a reminder to inscribe the moment and its context later.
By the way, keeping a journal is essential to any self-development program no matter what area you’re trying to work on. It helps you “take a moment” which is foundational. It also helps you see areas of progress and setbacks. It provides tremendous insight.