Guilt is never a pleasant emotion but it is often a useful one. Guilt signals us that something we’ve done or something we’re about to do might cause harm to another person. We can then avoid the action in question or make up for our wrongdoing with apologies or gestures of atonement. In this way, guilt serves an important role in helping us maintain and preserve our most valuable relationships. However, its ability to do so depends entirely on the accuracy of the signal it sends us—guilty feelings are beneficial only when they’re triggered for good reason (read How to Manage Guilt Trips here).
Guilt Proneness as Like Having an Overactive Smoke Detector in Your Head
Imagine living in a house with a faulty smoke detector that went off whenever someone lit a candle or put something in the oven. Every time you heard the screeching alarm, you worried something bad was happening, dropped what you’re doing, and ran over, anticipating an emergency. Now imagine this happens several times a day. Living in that house would make anyone feel tense, on edge, irritable, and stressed out. Even if you believed your family members were entitled to bake a cake or light a candle, you would probably feel resentful toward them for doing so, as it was likely to trip the smoke detector.
Being guilt prone is like having an overactive smoke detector inside your head. Besides the visceral discomfort it presents, excessive guilt is very distracting and it can seriously hamper your ability to concentrate and focus. Further, because the mechanism that triggers your guilt is set incorrectly, the messages your guilty feelings convey are often inaccurate and misleading. The frequency of these erroneous signals make you perceive yourself as someone who repeatedly fails or hurts others and you might live in constant dread of their criticism and disapproval. Over time, feeling as though you’re consistently disappointing those around you can erode your self-esteem and make your feel unentitled to voice any complaints and dissatisfactions of your own when you have them. You are also likely to develop deep feelings of resentment that you keep them bottled up until they explode in fits of anger, anguish, or both.
Guilt Proneness Creates Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
In addition to the internal distress guilt proneness creates, it also impacts your relationships. The ‘false alarms’ your guilt proneness generates can easily lead you to create self-fulfilling prophecies that unwittingly reinforce the erroneous messages your guilty feelings often convey. Consider the following scenario:
You finish a very long and exhausting day at work. Your excessive guilt kicks in and you spend your entire commute home feeling bad about missing dinner with your family and anticipating your partner is annoyed—even though you let them know you would be working late and felt bad about it, and even though they gave you no indication they’re upset. By the time you get home you feel stressed, defensive, and resentful, and you greet your partner stiffly. They react to your strained greeting with a strained response of their own, which confirms your suspicions that they’re annoyed (even though they were perfectly fine until you greeted them coldly), which only makes you feel more guilty and resentful. The fact that your over-active guilt made you act in a way that created a self-fulfilling prophecy is likely to elude you entirely.
How to Restore Your Peace of Mind
1. Accept the signal is faulty: You have to accept that the signal your guilt sends you is often incorrect. You have to consider the option that you haven’t done something wrong even though your insides are telling you that you have, or that the other person isn’t upset with you even though you’re convinced they are. Of course, that won’t be true every time, so here’s what you need to do:
2. Verify your wrongdoing is real: In order to assess if your guilt is misleading you do the following thought exercise: Imagine the situation was reversed, that you and the other person switched roles. For example, imagine it was your partner who was working really hard. They called to let you know they would be home late and that they felt bad about missing dinner. Would you feel angry they were working late or would you appreciate their hard work and that they took the time to call you? Would you feel they deserved the cold shoulder when they got home or extra care and affection? If you literally put yourself in the other person’s shoes and conclude you wouldn’t be angry at your partner for working late, you have to assume you’ve done nothing wrong and that your partner has no reason to be angry with you either.
3. Ignore the erroneous message and smile. When you conclude your guilt is sending you an incorrect message, label your guilt as a false alarm, ignore it as best you can and make efforts to have a positive attitude in order to avoid creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For much more about how to overcome excessive guilt check out Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).
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Copyright 2013 Guy Winch
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