Guilt, like worry, is a useless emotion—useless because we don’t need to feel bad about ourselves to take corrective actions. Guilt is a useless emotion for three basic reasons:
Feeling guilty does not undo mistakes of the past nor does it steer us toward making things better. In other words, why feel guilty? With apologies for the platitude, there is a ring of truth about the saying, “The past is history and the future has yet to be written.”
We zing ourselves with guilt whenever we judge ourselves harshly for what we do, say, or think that violates our underlying values. But what good does it do for you (or for others whom may have been harmed by your actions) to cook in your own guilty juices.
But perhaps you're thinking that guilt does help you change your present behavior by keeping you aligned with the straight and narrow. "If it weren't for guilt," you say to yourself, "I might abandon my values, fly off to some exotic destination, desert my family, and squander my savings or act-out promiscuously. Guilt keeps my behavior in check." Or perhaps you think if it weren't for your inner voice of conscience ("Hey you, this is your conscience speaking. Don't you dare eat that chocolate brownie!"), you would surrender all control to your baser impulses. In these cases, it's not guilt which keeps you from acting out, but rather your values and core beliefs that you rely on to regulate your behavior.
Another way of looking at the uselessness of guilt is to recognize how guilt itself leads to unproductive behavior. Take a scenario in which you do something you feel you shouldn't have done and feel guilty afterward. Suppose in a moment of weakness you indulged in eating a chocolate-glazed donut for breakfast. For the rest of the day you feel guilty, beating yourself up in your mind for having violated your diet. The more negative thoughts you have about yourself, the more guilty you feel, and the more likely you’ll be to eat more to live down to your self-perception.
For Sophia, life was cruel from the start. Her parents divorced when she was three and she was raised by her mother, who battled alcoholism and bouts of depression. Sophia was exposed to a series of her mother's boyfriends, each of whom received the ingenious appellation of being Uncle this or Uncle that. Sophia reported that she felt unwanted by her mother—a left-over reminder of a failed relationship: "I never really believed that she loved me. How can I love myself when I never felt that I was loved?"
Her mother felt defeated and bitter about how her life had turned out. Sophia learned to mirror her own self-concept after that of her mother, thinking of herself as defeated even before she had a chance to start her own life. Her negative appraisals of herself were reflected in many self-defeating beliefs, such as:
Sophia was driven by a need to fail and thereby fulfill the unstated but implicit covenant with her mother to prove how undeserving she truly was. She felt destined to live according to a miserable life script: to become a failure and find someone to whom she could bitch about how miserable her life had become. There was a pressing need to do something bad—an abortion or drug abuse might do—to demonstrate obedience to her mother's view of how unworthy she was. In a twisted vein of logic, she believed that by degrading herself, she would repent for unnamed sins she had never committed in the first place.
In the eyes of a small child, any grown-up, especially a parent, seems all-knowing and all-powerful. When a child feels unloved by its parents, the child may hold him or herself to blame. The child learns that punishments are meted out for bad behavior. It's a logical inference that the withdrawal of parental love represents a punishment for something bad the child has done. But unlike ordinary punishment, in which the nature of the misbehavior is clear, the withdrawal of parental love and approval is not connected to any specific behavior. The child concludes there must be something about himself or herself that is to blame; that she or he is so deeply flawed as to be unworthy of love. The child misperceives deficits in him or herself as responsible for the loss of approval and develops a self-concept inscribed by negative self-attitudes: "If only I were smarter. . . or more athletic. . . or good looking. . . then I would be loved."
The child may be unable to adopt an objective perspective needed to recognize that lack of parental approval or affection stems from parenting deficits, not from unworthiness within oneself. When children mature, they may still carry the residue of blaming themselves for parental neglect.
With self-esteem deficits as deeply ingrained as Sophia's, it may take extensive professional treatment before the adult can replace a pattern of blaming oneself with one of understanding and self-acceptance. Forgiveness must also cut both ways. Patients must come to understand that their parents were also conflicted in ways that limited their ability to be nurturing and supportive.
In some cases, the child feels loved by the parent or parents, but not understood or respected. Children may struggle to be understood or find a way of earning parental respect. For some children, the availability of a supportive friend, or another family member, or perhaps a teacher can help build self-esteem and replace what might have been missing in the home. Being understood by someone whom you respect and value can help validate perceptions of self-worth and overcome deep feelings of guilt.
But there are also things you can do yourself to confront and replace guilty thoughts with healthier alternative thoughts:
The fact is that you talked yourself into guilt, so you can talk yourself out of guilt. Nobody can make you feel guilty. We are the architects of our guilt and our other emotions, including anxiety, worry, anger, and sadness. You make yourself feel guilty by what you say to yourself about your own behavior. Isn’t it time to start stop thinking yourself down and start talking sense to yourself? For example:
Think through how to set things right. Rehashing the wrongs you think you’ve committed won't solve a thing, but will certainly make you feel worse about yourself. Maintain a task orientation by keeping your thoughts focused on problems that need to be solved in the present, not on mistakes of the past.
Don’t judge yourself as bad, evil, or sinful because of something you did. Ask yourself, what were your motives? Did you intend to hurt others? Or did you just make a mistake, miscalculate what would happen, or just screwed up? Are you truly an evil, wicked person, or just a human being who makes mistakes or measures up to something less than a paragon of virtue? Well, in that case, join the club.
The irony about guilt is that people who truly intend to harm others, willfully and purposefully, feel little if any guilt about their misdeeds. Yet those whose actions were never intended or meant to cause harm are the very ones to sling themselves with needless guilt. When we feel guilty, we tend to misperceive the intent of our actions. We fail to recognize that even well-intentioned behavior can sometimes be misguided, careless, or just plain dumb. As we see next, we blame ourselves only for outcomes and overlook intentions.
People tend to feel guilty when they judge themselves on end-results of their behavior rather than intentions. A young woman in therapy told me she felt guilty when she broke off a relationship just short of a possible engagement. "How could I have let this go this far?" she scolded herself. "How could I be so unfair to lead him on to expect I'd always be there for him. And then I turn around and dump him. That's really low." In challenging these guilt-inducing thoughts, the young woman learned to separate intention from outcome by posing questions to herself, such as the following: “Didn’t I think the relationship might develop further when it started out? Weren't my intentions motivated by a desire to give the relationship the opportunity to succeed? Didn't we both understand that there were no guarantees?"
Ask yourself whether it's reasonable to condemn yourself when things don't turn out according to plan, even when you couldn't possibly have known the outcome in advance. Ask yourself whether your behavior was really meant to hurt someone else or whether it was motivated by a desire to change things for the better. Put your behavior in context—what you knew at the time, what you were thinking, and what you expected or hoped would happen. Not by how it turned out.
Do you exaggerate the importance of your mistakes and transgressions? Do you hold yourself to a higher standard of conduct than other people? True, your behavior at times might be foolish, stupid, clumsy, or selfish. When we feel guilty, we tend to magnify the importance of the transgressions we judge ourselves having committed. You might find it helpful to ask yourself where you place your own transgressions on the scale of horrors and evils to which the world has tragically borne witness.
Rather than stew in guilty feelings, doesn’t it make more sense to say to yourself something like, “Yes, I did something I regret. I wish I could take back what I said (or did).” Take ownership of your behavior, learn from your mistakes, and move on.
Adopt the frame of mind that "what's done is done," that there's no turning back the clock to undo mistakes of the past. The best remedy for guilt is to take effective action in the present to correct past mistakes by righting any wrongs and preventing future mistakes from repeating themselves.
Guilt, like anxiety and pain, is an internal signal. Guilt signals occur when you judge yourself as having broken your moral code. There are three general attitudes you might take toward past mistakes.
If you do something stupid or hurtful, fess up to it. Recognize you've done a stupid or hurtful thing. But don't leap to the illogical conclusion that therefore you are an awful, hurtful, bad, or stupid person to have done something stupid and hurtful. The behavior itself may be stupid. But even smart, caring, and good people sometimes engage in behaviors they later regret. Labeling yourself as a rotten person makes you feel miserable about yourself, but does not help you direct your energies toward solving the problems you face.
Personalizing the misfortunes of others is one of the primary sources of guilt. The parent automatically feels guilty for the son's alcohol or drug problems. The husband feels he bears responsibility for his wife's chronic depression. The guilty person thinks, "If only I had done this (or that), this terrible thing would never have happened." Disputing these sources of guilt comes from recognizing that other people, even our closest loved ones, don't exist as satellites orbiting around ourselves at the center of the universe. Learning to recognize that other people's problems reflect many influences and causes having nothing to do with you helps you focus on helping them solve their problems, rather than needlessly abusing yourself with misplaced guilt.
There is guilt you impose on yourself and there is guilt that others try to impose on you. Guilt is the great manipulator. Appealing to someone's sense of guilt is a favored technique of social influence. For example, few of us can resist a direct guilty appeal, such as when your aging mother calls to tell you, "You don't have to drive me to the doctor's office. It's only two or three buses. So what if it's freezing outside? If I bundle up perhaps I won't come down with pneumonia. If it kills me, at least you won't have to worry about me any longer." Or perhaps it's your son who's learned to push your guilt buttons by saying, "If you earned more money, then I could go to the college of my choice. It's all your fault I can’t get the education I want.” Or maybe it's your daughter who says, "Daddy, everyone else takes horseback riding lessons. Why can't I?"
Then there are the ways in which married partners use guilt to manipulate each other. One favorite technique is the familiar, "How could you hurt me like this?" Or the equally familiar, "If you really cared about me, you wouldn't be acting this way." Then there's the ever popular, "If you want me to be miserable, just keep doing what you're doing." And let's not forget the tried and true, "How come you can't be like _______?"
Keep in mind a fundamental principle of cognitive control: No one can make you feel any emotion. No one can make you feel angry, depressed, annoyed, guilty, or whatever. Other people may do things which are upsetting, annoying, irritating or aggravating. Your son may forget to walk the dog when he returns from school. Your spouse may fall asleep when you're suddenly feeling amorous. Your mother or father may scold you for not calling frequently enough. Or your kitchen contractor may decide that the month of February is really meant to be spent playing golf in Florida rather than finishing your cabinets. But it’s a matter of how you respond to these upsetting events that determine your emotional reactions.
Emotions are internal private mental events. No one can get inside your head to control your feelings. No one can push your buttons unless you turn this control over to them. How you feel about your life experiences is a matter of how you interpret them, not the events themselves. When you allow troubling events to trouble you more by thinking more troubling thoughts, you're likely to be burdened with troubling emotions. But when you rethink your response to events, you learn to control your emotional reactions and regulate how you deal with upsetting events.
“If it’s not my fault, then whose fault is it?” There are those who believe that psychotherapy has three major aims: understand yourself, then forgive yourself, then forgive everyone else. One of the common misconceptions that patients have about psychotherapy is that the answer to their problems will emerge when they find out who’s at fault. Fault-finding covers over the true challenge of psychotherapy, which is to stop recreating the mistakes of the past in terms of what you think of yourself and how you relate to others. By replaying tired old scripts with new people playing the various familiar parts, you remain a prisoner of the past. To overcome guilt, you need to stop playing the fault game and focus instead of fixing things.
Clients often find it helps to write a personal testimony about what they did and how it affected others. This is not an opportunity to explain or justify your actions. Don’t add any buts (“I was wrong, but. . . .”). Just express regret (“I’m sorry I did ____”) and what (if anything) you can do to make amends. You can write a letter of apology to other people you may have hurt in some way and even to those who may be deceased. In that case, writing a letter of apology that only you will see can be an important step toward working through guilty feelings.
When you were growing up, were you routinely scolded, criticized, and made to feel ashamed or guilty? We’re you put down by others as a loser, failure, or a good-for-nothing kid? Are those put-down voices still in your head, but now, it is yourself who is putting you down? Do you press your own guilt buttons whenever you fall short or encounter disappointment? Evaluate the standards you are using to judge yourself. Ask yourself, are you being fair to yourself? Would you judge others as harshly as you judge yourself? Which brings us, finally, to. . .
Are you more willing to forgive others for the same misdeeds than you are to forgive yourself? What’s up with that? Apply the Biblical maxim in reverse: Do unto yourself what you would do unto others. If you are willing to forgive others, you should be willing to forgive yourself. Does it make sense to apply one set of standards to others and a separate set of standards to yourself?
Tell yourself, "Okay, I can sit around feeling guilty, or I can get off my butt and make things better. Let me think through what I can do to set things right. Rehashing all the wrongs I feel I've done won't solve a thing, but will only keep me feeling down on myself."
When you look back on things you did that you now regret, ask yourself what you learned from these experiences that you can correct going forward. What healthier thoughts can you substitute to help you avoid making these same mistakes again? What different actions can you take? Guilt is adaptive only if it is a road map to making healthy changes in your thoughts and behavior.
At the end of the day, how you feel about your life is a function of what you say to yourself. With guilt, it’s a function of what you say to yourself about yourself that matters. Perhaps it’s time to get off the guilt train by talking sense to yourself.
© 2017 Jeffrey S. Nevid