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Escape the Guilt Trap

Make self-acceptance and forgiveness a way of life

“American novelist and humorist Erma Bombeck, is often quoted on guilt: ‘Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.’ How right she was. For, when you suffer from guilty excesses, you are likely to simultaneously suffer from fear of disapproval, shame, embarrassment, depression, anxiety, and self-downing.” Russell Grieger, Ph.D.

Dr. Russ Grieger is a Charlottesville Virginia psychotherapist and adjunct professor who co-authored Fearless Job Hunting with Dr. Bill Knaus and The Handbook of Rational Emotive Therapy with Dr. Albert Ellis. He discusses where guilt is appropriate, where guilt is harmful, and how to combat the harmful variety. By following his advice, you can avoid a double whammy effect of anxiety over guilt. Here is Russ’ article:

For centuries, different philosophers and theologians opined that guilt is the natural and appropriate emotional response when one acts badly. To live productively in society takes exercising socially appropriate restraints. Guilt is a form of restraint. Guilt that follows an intentional wrongful act, is appropriate. Guilt, in the form of regret, followed by good faith efforts to remedy a harm, is pro-social.

As practically everyone knows, guilt can be both irrational and inappropriate. Guilt, where you make your worth contingent on doing only right and perfect things, is an absurd form of guilt. Lingering guilt over past errors, rarely does more than fester into resentment.

Dr. Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavior therapy, separates functional from harmful guilt. He shows how to rid yourself of harmful guilt and lead a happy life without compromising your ethics or social conscious. Let's look at three of his insights into guilt, three cognitive causes for harmful guilt, and five techniques to rid yourself of irrational guilt.

Three Insights

Ellis has three insights for leading a disturbance-free, socially responsible, and happy life.

Insight 1. People are not guilt ridden by what happened to them or by the wrong acts they committed, no matter how dastardly or egregious they may have been. Rather they guilt-trip themselves over past poor behavior by evaluating and globally denouncing themselves. In other words, you cause your own excess guilt by the way your judge yourself. Once practiced, this process tends to be automatic. However, once you make yourself aware of this automatic process, you can exercise your higher mental abilities to ferret out the erroneous messages that form needlessly negative self-judgments, separate those that are valid from those that aren't, and discard guilt excesses.

Insight 2. It is not people's childhood experiences that cause them to feel guilty, but the judgments they make in the present that cause them to experience their current guilt. Sure, children are often taught how to feel guilt and carry this form of socialization over to adulthood. They now make themselves guilty by re-endorsing guilt-laden beliefs. Instead of focusing on what went wrong, create a balance. What have you done right that you can celebrate?

Insight 3. Guilt lingers when left to roam your mind unobstructed. To combat guilt-inducing judgments, work hard to (1) de-indoctrinate yourself of false self-judgments, (2) accept new set of non-judgmental beliefs, (3) accept responsibility for your behavior, including your exemplary actions.

You’re Not Perfect. You Can Do Better

Let's say you did something contrary to both social norms and your social value system. Perhaps you told a lie, acted rudely, or neglected a friend in distress. Maybe you abused alcohol and injured somebody in a traffic accident. You regret these past actions. You also take this one-step beyond regret. You keep telling yourself that you acted rottenly, as you should not have done, and are a bad person.

What can you do to rid yourself of guilty excesses and advance your enlightened self-interests (doing better for yourself as well as for your community)? Ellis identified three cognitive culprits that lurk behind guilt and a basic resolution for each:

Thinking perfectionistic. Here is an example “I shouldn't have done that” (and I’m a worm for doing something that I should not have done). What would Dr. Ellis say? While it may have been desirable for you to have behaved differently, when you use “should” or “shouldn't” as imperatives, you hold perfectionist expectations. Hew to a standard that you must never error, act badly, or have a fault, and you are on the path to guilt. He’d go on to say something like this: Hogwash! It is arrogant that you hold yourself up as special and as above other fallible human beings who do err, act badly, and have faults. Think about your thinking and start thinking in reasonable and responsible ways about yourself.

Awfulizing thinking. Here is an example. “What I did was awful, horrible, and terrible—worse than bad!” What would Dr. Ellis say? Your evaluations exaggerate the degree of badness. If you believe that nothing can be worse that what you did, consider this view. Is your act beyond the damage of the holocaust, the bubonic plague, Stalin’s purges, and collective child abuse from all of history? Now, what can you do to act and do better?

Thinking self-damningly. Here is an example. “I’m a thoroughly rotten person for having done what I did.” Let’s assume that you acted badly. What would Dr. Ellis say? You behaved badly; but are you just that action? While it is true that you are accountable for your actions, your global self is far from being entirely damnable. For example, you have hundreds of traits, qualities and attributes. Some are more important and visible than others. One negative –or collection of negatives--doesn’t wash out the rest. By acknowledging this self-performance distinction, you can more freely dump a contingency worth problem and work on self-improvements.

Rid Yourself of Irrational Guilt

If you choose to rid yourself of irrational guilt, here's what Dr. Ellis would say.

1. Acknowledge your mistake, be sorry for it without defensiveness, and commit to doing your best not to repeat it in the future.

2. Ferret out guilt-trip judgments. Find your “should” or “shouldn'ts”, your “awfulizing,” and your “self-damming.” Label these as irrational. Recognize them as your enemy.

3. Distinguish between your rational and irrational thoughts: “I regret doing that” vs. “I should have been perfect and not have done that;” “That was unfortunate” vs. “That was horrible;” “I acted badly” vs. “I am a bad person.”

4. Convince yourself, over and over, 100 times if you must, that each of these irrational beliefs – demanding perfection, awfulizing, self-damming – are self-damaging definitions. Examine exactly why they are so destructive. Consider rational alternatives.

5. Repeatedly use rational coping messages: “I am a fallible human being who could not, cannot, and will not ever act perfect or be without faults. I will try to do well, but, when I inevitably don't, it is not horrible. I am never a rotten person.” Reflect on this coping statement five minutes at a time, six times a day.

It takes hard work to break a guilt trap. You can make progress by replacing irrational guilt with a rational acceptance of responsibility and by taking corrective actions.

This blog is part of a series to celebrate the 100th and 101st year anniversaries of Dr. Albert Ellis’ birth. Ellis is the founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy and the grandfather of cognitive-behavior therapy.

Albert Ellis Revisited (Carlson & Knaus 2013) is the Albert Ellis Tribute Book Series centennial yearbook. The publisher, Routledge, offers a 20% discount on the book. Control click on this link: Albert Ellis Revisited. Type the code Ellis for the discount. The book qualifies for free shipping and handling. Bill Knaus’ royalties from this book go directly to the Denan Project charity. When you buy the book, you are helping yourself by learning ways to live life fully, and you are helping bring irrigation, crops, and health care to destitute areas of the world.

For more information on rational emotive behavior therapy, click on Albert Ellis’ official website: Albert Ellis Network:

For other articles in this centennial (and beyond) Albert Ellis tribute blog series, cut and paste any of the below http links to your server's http request header:

Freedom from Harmful, Negative, Thinking:

Do this One Thing And Stop Procrastinating:…

Steps to Overcome Public Speaking Anxiety:…

When It Comes to Love and Romance, What's Fair? What's Not? :…

Three Core Anxieties and How to Calm Them:…

12 Key Ideas for Self-Liberation:…

Ten Commandments to Stop Quick Ejaculation:…

13 Tips to Make Self-Help Therapy Work for You:…

5 Mental Traps Relationships Can't Escape:…

Six Calming Tips for Parenting Teens:…

Click on Dr. Grieger to see his Psychology Today blog series.

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Russell Grieger Ph.D.

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