Guilt plays an important role for people. If you steal or purposely harm someone, you will, hopefully and rightfully, experience guilt. As a therapist, it is not my job to help people rid themselves of this feeling, but rather to find a way to cope with it. However, far more often, people — especially women — enter therapy with a misplaced sense of guilt. 

People sometimes relate extremely well to someone else’s pain and feel guilty for not alleviating it; even when they didn’t cause the pain and it’s not their responsibility to fix. They misinterpret their sadness, empathy and their wish that they could help as the feeling of guilt. And they get unnecessarily “tied up in knots” with their distress.

To determine if this is you, take a step back from your guilt and do the following:

Ask yourself, “What ‘crime’ did I commit? For you to really be guilty, you need to have done something wrong or harmful.

Next, ask yourself, “Could I reasonably have known that my actions were wrong or that a problem would ensue?” Committing a crime means that you choose to do something that you know is wrong or harmful.

It is extremely important to understand that you can be responsible for a problem or contributing to a problem without being guilty. To help clarify this, let me share a personal example. Many years ago, I was driving home from work at a hospital during twilight hours. I was driving within the speed limit through a local neighborhood when a large black dog sprinted in front of my car; and I unavoidably hit it. The dog eventually died; and I was racked with grief and guilt. However, I eventually realized that while I was responsible for killing the dog (there was no denying that I hit it with my car), I had not done anything that I could reasonably have known would cause such a horrible outcome. I was responsible, but not guilty. I admit that the distinction can be tricky, but it is key.

Also, when you see someone suffering, it is important to ask yourself, “Is it my responsibility to fix the problem? And, is it realistic for me to fix the problem?” You may truly want to fix things or ease someone’s pain, but this doesn’t mean you are responsible for doing it or guilty if you don’t do it. There are many problematic situations that are too much for us to add to our load, beyond what we can fix, or inappropriate for us to take on. You might be left with feeling sad and sympathetic, which can be difficult emotions to experience. But turning them into guilt will only make you feel worse.

By thinking through your guilt and clarifying the situation, you might be able to end unnecessary distress. You might even free up more energy to help yourself and others — if only by openly listening to someone’s distress without having to defend yourself. You might also be better able to assist someone else in a way and at pace that works for them; rather than pushing to fix things fast to alleviate your “guilt.”

So, if you are feeling guilty, pay close attention and ask yourself, “Is it really guilt?”

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.

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