Guilt never feels good, but it can often be a useful emotion. 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. Guilt can help us maintain and preserve our most valuable relationships, but only if the signals it sends are accurate. Guilty feelings are beneficial only when they’re triggered for good reason. (Read How to Manage Guilt Trips.)
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 turned on the oven. Every time you heard the screeching alarm, you'd worry that something bad was happening, drop whatever you were doing, and run over, anticipating an emergency. 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 so likely to trigger the smoke detector.
Being guilt prone is like having an overactive smoke detector inside your head. Besides the visceral discomfort it causes, excessive guilt is distracting and 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; 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 you feel unentitled to voice any complaints or dissatisfactions of your own when you have them. You are also likely to develop deep feelings of resentment that you keep bottled up until they explode in fits of anger, anguish, or both.
Guilt Proneness Creates Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
In addition to the internal distress that being guilt-prone creates, it also impacts your relationships. You may create self-fulfilling prophecies that unwittingly reinforce the erroneous messages your guilty feelings convey.
Consider the following scenario: You finish a 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 that your partner is annoyed—even though you let them know that you would be working late and that you felt bad about it, and even though they gave you no indication that they were upset. By the time you get home, you feel stressed, defensive, and resentful, and 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. This only makes you feel more guilty and resentful. You may not realize that your over-active guilt made you act in a way that created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How to Restore Peace of Mind
1. Accept that the signal is faulty. You have to accept that the signal your guilt sends you is often incorrect. 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 that your wrongdoing is real. In order to assess whether your guilt is misleading you, try the following thought exercise: Imagine the situation is reversed, and that you and the other person have 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 that they were working late, or would you appreciate their hard work and their taking the time to call? 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 that you wouldn’t be angry at your partner for working late, you have to assume that 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 that your guilt is sending you an incorrect message, label your guilt as a false alarm, ignore it as best you can and make a fresh effort to have a positive attitude in order to avoid creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.