- It’s important to determine when feelings of guilt are rationally based and when they’re more arbitrary.
- Blaming yourself for a mistake that was beyond your control means assuming an intention or volition that may not characterize your behavior.
- Try to talk compassionately but authoritatively to the “inner child” parts of you with whom most of your irrational guilt programs originated.
Feelings of guilt arise from betraying your own rules for ethical behavior. If these rules belonged to someone else, you’d be guilt-free. But if, however unconsciously, you’re affiliated with these blameworthy standards—or perhaps, in growing up “imbibed” them from your family—you’ll be vulnerable to this self-tormenting emotion.
As a psychological phenomenon, guilt can be frustratingly thorny. For if you’re afflicted with a tyrannical superego—one that feels compelled to come after you for the slightest perceived infraction—you’ll be haunted by such feelings even when you haven’t done anything that would generally be regarded as culpable. As a therapist, I’ve seen many people who guilted themselves over illicit thoughts or impulses that, for sure, we’ve all had at one time or another. If we feel someone’s duped or deceived us, for example, it’s hard not to entertain vindictive fantasies of revenge. Or if our libido is running riot, it’s almost irresistible not to imagine ripping off the clothes of whoever is most sexually arousing to us. And so on.
It’s therefore essential to determine just when feelings of guilt are rationally based and when they’re more or less arbitrary—not grounded in fact, and so needlessly self-punishing. Obviously, if you’ve caused an innocent person harm, or failed to help someone in crisis when it would have been easy enough to do so, it would be unethical not to experience a few pangs of remorse. In such instances, you’d almost have to be sociopathic if your conscience didn’t bother you.
Writers on this subject have talked about the importance of distinguishing between rational, or “productive,” guilt and guilt that’s inordinately self-critical—and gratuitous. Such unjustified guilt has been linked to needless emotional suffering and self-loathing. And if it lasts long enough, this internal agonizing can lead to such anxiety or shame-based problems as substance abuse, sexual disorders, and an enormous variety of other self-sabotaging behaviors. So unless guilt feelings are actually necessary for you to take appropriate responsibility for a significant misdeed such feelings don’t really serve you or anyone.
What, then, is to be done about such unwarranted self-abuse? How can you effectively talk yourself out of an emotion that, however undeserved, threatens to take hold of you? For, after all, feelings of guilt tend to culminate in painful, counter-productive rumination—which, in turn, only strengthens the feeling and intensifies your emotional misery.
Here are some suggestions that you should find useful:
(1) Tell yourself that you did the best you could—that whatever lapse of sound judgment impelled you to do something you now regret was yet the best judgment available to you at the time. You may simply have been too angry, anxious, depressed, distracted, or fatigued to have been in full possession of your moral faculties. So can you accept that, given the particular psychological or physical circumstances prevailing at the time, you couldn’t have acted any differently from the way you did?
Self-forgiveness follows—and is dependent on—compassionate self-understanding. So it’s imperative to explore the circumstances that surrounded your misconduct if you’re to reassess yourself less negatively.
(2) Consider that at the time of your misbehavior, you didn’t know what you know now. It’s unkind, or even cruel, to blame yourself for acting in a way that you would definitely have avoided had you more awareness than, realistically, could have been expected of you at the time. The well-known expression: “Hindsight is always 20/20” is pertinent here, for it zeroes in on the unfortunate human tendency to attribute knowledge to ourselves that could have prevented some adverse (or even traumatic) event from happening—when in fact such information wasn’t really accessible to us then.
Say, you’re experiencing guilt because a good friend asked you to come over to their apartment because they were feeling really low, and that you apologetically refused because you had a prior commitment that would have been extremely awkward to break. The next day you learned that he (or she) had a drunken binge later that night, got into a car, and drove into a telephone pole. Now they’re in the hospital ICU, suffering from severe injuries.
At first, it’s natural enough to experience guilt and blame yourself for not being there for them when their earlier call clearly indicated they were in major distress. And admittedly, it might be hard to banish the thought that you could have prevented their accident had you canceled your plans for them. So you might well see yourself as bearing a certain responsibility for their self-harm.
But consider: In following such a harsh reasoning process, how fair are you being to yourself? In general, holding yourself at moral fault for another’s misfortune because, presumably, you could have averted it is, from a more objective and humane perspective, doing yourself an injustice. Many situations induce guilt because you’re prone not simply to feel responsible for the behavior of others but overly responsible for them.
(3) Remind yourself that you’re not to blame for surviving a tragedy that someone close to you did not. Continuing with our example of car accidents, say someone you knew well was killed in a vehicular tragedy in which you yourself were a passenger. Logically, you bear no responsibility for that person’s death, but it’s hardly abnormal to experience guilt anyway.
This is what’s commonly referred to as “survivor’s guilt,” and we’re all more or less prone to it. Still, in such scenarios, you need to repeatedly tell yourself that who might lose their life in such a calamity is largely a matter of chance. And that surviving another’s disaster in no way makes you culpable for it. So consciously defocus from any gratuitous guilt you may be experiencing and instead allow yourself to center on the much more warranted feelings of grief and sorrow.
(4) Remember that to blame yourself for a mistake or mishap that at the time was beyond your control is to assume an intention or volition, that may not at all characterize your behavior. If you’d had the awareness, intuition, insight, energy, that at the time you didn’t have, of course, you’d have acted differently. But since the actual facts of the situation contradict the notion that you could have behaved otherwise, to guilt yourself over some misfortune is, almost literally, to add (self-) insult to injury.
Do you tend to beat yourself up for mistakes that, from time to time, all of us make? If so, you need to stop being so hard on yourself. You may assume that if you let yourself off the hook, you’d only commit additional errors. But that’s rarely the case. In fact, if you’re less nervous about, or distracted by, the possibility of making a mistake, this alone will probably reduce the number of miscues, slip-ups, or blunders you’re likely to commit.
Let’s say that you crash your or another’s car. Ask yourself: “Realistically, could I have prevented this from happening?” The accident certainly wasn’t voluntary, or it wouldn’t be called an accident. Reflect on other contingencies that may have contributed to the misfortune. Could it have been precipitated not simply by poor judgment on your part, but perhaps as much, or more, by other factors. Which could include hazardous road conditions, a confusing traffic sign, another driver’s suddenly stopping in the middle of an intersection, a manufacturing defect in the make and model of your car, and so forth.
Any number of things that can cause you and/or others emotional or physical pain may relate to situations that aren’t primarily your responsibility. They may involve you, but they don’t necessarily implicate you. And even if you do bear direct responsibility for an accident, how many people do you think go through a lifetime without one? We all have lapses in judgment. And when that happens, it’s a matter of asking yourself afterward: (a) whether there’s something useful for you to learn from the mishap so you don’t repeat it, and (b) just what’s behind your reluctance to forgive yourself. Must you feel guilty and think less of yourself simply because you’re as human as the rest of us?
(5) Tell yourself that the behavioral ideals you set for yourself may be too high, or that your original family may have encouraged you to adopt—or even forced upon you—overly rigorous standards that you now judge yourself by. It’s possible that you guilt yourself for not accomplishing something that really isn’t in you to achieve. We all have certain inherent limits, and if you got the message that if you failed at something it was only because you hadn’t tried hard enough, you may emotionally punish yourself whenever you don’t succeed at something you believe you could have, or should have.
Moreover, compulsively striving for perfection is a wonderful set-up for failure and low self-regard. If accepting yourself—which, ideally, should be unconditional—takes a hit every time you fall short of your possibly excessive expectations, you’ll only be guaranteeing your own misery.
(6) Acknowledge and honor your right to protect your self-interests. Are you someone who finds it hard to say no, for if you do you’ll feel guilty? But really, how morally responsible are you for complying with what someone else might ask of you? And here I certainly don’t mean to advocate becoming more inconsiderate or selfish. On the contrary, I regard generosity and service to others as a laudable, humanistic life stance. I merely wish to point out that, as a general behavioral guide, you’re totally justified in valuing your need quite as much as another’s. If this isn’t the case, you’re likely to end up being treated as a human doormat because even when others’ preferences directly conflict with yours, you routinely subjugate yourself to them.
If you do cater to others’ interests and typically ignore your own you might want to consider the probable source of such self-demeaning behavior. Do you have some ancient belief that people won’t like you if you deny them what they want? Or that you’re only lovable if you minister unto others? Or might there be some other self-degrading program that regularly impels you to put others’ wants and needs ahead of your own? If so, it may be high time for you to put to the test such negative assumptions about yourself. And going forward, to work on overcoming any anxiety about altering them.
(7) Recognize the legitimacy of standing up for your rights. Closely related to the above, this suggestion centers on feeling okay about asserting yourself and comfortably setting limits when someone may be on the verge of taking advantage of you. If, for example, you get an unsolicited phone call trying to sell you something, don’t be concerned that you might be seen as rude if, essentially, you hang up. “Cold calls” themselves might be seen as inherently rude inasmuch as they show little or no respect for the individual contacted. Basically, you’re being viewed as a potential “mark”—someone who might be willing to put their trust in a stranger and buy into something when there’s no good reason to. Regrettably, there are countless people who’d be happy to exploit you if you’re willing to grant them the opportunity. So it’s crucial to remind yourself that in a large variety of situations you may need to stand firm when your gut tells you that your basic rights will be violated otherwise.
(8) Tell yourself that, even if they’re at odds with another’s, there’s nothing wrong or bad about diligently pursuing your own goals. Here what needs to be stressed is that though you may not want to involve yourself in conflictual or competitive situations, there are times when it’s unavoidable. So say you tend to guilt yourself whenever you’re in a position where, if you’re to be successful, you must compete with and defeat someone else. It’s hardly self-respecting to back down simply because your oppressive, domineering, or over-regulatory conscience may be pressuring you to “drop out of the race.”
In growing up, you may have been conditioned to regard yourself as selfish whenever you didn’t defer to your family in circumstances where what they were trying to achieve ran counter to your own aspirations. But despite how difficult it may now feel to stand strong and fight for what genuinely matters to you, you’ll end up selling yourself short if you forsake your goals simply because they clash with another’s.
And lastly—and perhaps most importantly:
(9) Talk compassionately—but authoritatively—to the “inner child” parts of you with whom most of your irrational guilt programs originated. At an earlier age, you can virtually assume that you received messages from your caretakers “instructing” you that certain of your behaviors were bad. And that they should provoke in you, feelings of guilt. Lacking the authority back then to question or challenge their viewpoint, you decided you had better adapt to these rules, routinely guilting yourself whenever your actions didn’t conform to these indisputable standards.
But now you’re older and have every right, based on your own experience and personally derived moral framework, to re-decide what you think is wrong or forbidden. Or at least what, in your own value system, is understandable, and so deserving of forgiveness. If, for example, your parents prompted you to conclude that giving priority to your desires over theirs was selfish, or that becoming anything but a doctor, lawyer, or engineer was unacceptable; or if the preacher at your family’s place of worship adamantly proclaimed that pre-marital sex was sinful and would be hazardous to your eventual marriage; etc., can you look differently at these outdated, guilt-engendering “lessons”?
Can the adult part of you somehow visualize the anxious child who initially received such self-detrimental messages as standing before you? And can you decisively inform that child that they’re all grown up now and no longer need to protect themselves from parental criticism by “infusing” you with guilt, but can let you make the decisions that best fit the two of you as the unique, self-determining individual you became?
In sum, can you now devise your own adult moral standards to guide your behaviors, teachings that have needlessly compromised you living a life that would be freer and fulfilling to you.
You’ll note that if there’s an overriding theme in these many suggestions it’s to fully, unconditionally accept yourself. For yes, you may have made mistakes ... and, be assured, you’ll continue to make them. But unless your moral “trespasses” are done out of pure, unadulterated wickedness (in which case, it’s doubtful you’d even be reading this!), you’re certainly worthy of your own compassion. And, with sufficient self-generosity and loving-kindness, you’ll find that there’s less and less for which you even need to forgive yourself.