I am a psychotherapist. In the last month, I’ve heard a lot about guilt in my practice:
- I feel guilty I’m not on the front lines.
- I feel guilty I have a nice place to live during quarantine.
- I feel guilty people have died and lost love ones and I have not.
- I feel guilty for not helping out enough.
- I feel guilty about the people working in grocery stores.
- I feel guilty I have toilet paper, Purell, and wipes.
- I feel guilty my mom or dad or friend are alone and I have family with me.
- I feel guilty I still have a job and others don’t.
I too can relate! Shouldn't I be volunteering at my local hospital?
Having good fortune when others don’t may lead to feeling guilty, and even ashamed.
What do we do with this guilt? How do we understand it? Should we soothe our guilt? Or do we deserve punishment? Is there something transformational to do with our guilt?
What is guilt?
Guilt is a wired-in emotion evoked when we believe we have done something bad. On the Change Triangle (my favorite tool to understand and work with my emotions), guilt is an inhibitory emotion. As such, it blocks access to core emotions like sadness, fear, joy, and gratitude. For example, my friend insults me, and my brain automatically and without conscious control triggers anger. The guilt is triggered milliseconds after to block the anger because I was taught “it’s not nice to be angry at friends.”
The evolutionary purpose of guilt is to keep us positively connected to others. It’s an advantage for humans to work together, so it’s important that we have an emotion to override selfishness. Guilt pushes us to stay in the good graces of the people we need. The “bad feeling” that guilt evokes in our mind and body propels us to do the “right thing.”
Accepting our limits
Knowing that nurses, doctors, and others risk infection to keep us safe evokes our sense of guilt. I also should be risking my life to help others. I want to be a good person but I am scared to die. I don’t want to risk my life. Even if I were a doctor or frontline worker, I am not sure I’d want to risk the health of my family or myself. Owning how we really feel is hard.
The process of accepting our limits is at first challenging, and then liberating. For me, my hardest and most painful work in therapy was processing the shame of not being perfectly giving at all times. I wanted to be a saint. But deep down we all know our shadow sides — our fearful side and our resentful side — with all the not-nice thoughts we have but never dare to share for fear of being unlovable. The process of accepting my limits and boundaries and learning to say No or I can’t helped me to accept all sides of myself, reduce my anxiety and anger, and paradoxically made me more truly loving.
Sometimes guilt is helpful, sometimes it is not
When we have truly done a bad deed, one with intent to hurt, lie, cheat, injure or betray, we should feel guilty. We have done something wrong for which we need to be accountable. Then we need to make amends. Many times, however, our guilt is unwarranted. We have not done anything wrong except care for ourselves. In this case, guilt serves to obscure a deeper conflict or pain, such as:
- Guilt for setting a limit or boundary, when others get angry or sad in response
- Guilt for not wanting to take a risk that others are willing to take
- Guilt for being alive when someone we love has died
- Guilt for taking care of our own needs when others resent us for it
- Guilt for preserving our mental and physical health when that choice affects others negatively
- Guilt for being lucky, having more than others, being born to privilege, and having more funds, assets, and food than others
The move from guilt to gratitude
What’s another way to deal with our good luck and good fortune? Shift from guilt to gratitude. Here’s how you do it: Think about what you have (i.e., enough room in your house for everyone to have privacy) or what you don’t have to do (work in a hospital) that makes you feel guilty. Now, feel grateful about it.
For example, I feel guilty that I live in an area where the infection rate is relatively low and I can easily socially distance while I walk outside. I experience my guilt as a sinking feeling in my stomach. Now, I shift into gratitude. I say out loud, “I am grateful I have a secluded house in which to quarantine myself. I am so lucky.” I don’t shift into “I don’t deserve it” or “I do deserve it,” because every one of us deserves safety and contentment. That is not the issue. The issue is gratitude feels better and is more useful than guilt.
The usefulness of gratitude
Now that you have moved from guilt to gratitude, it’s time to take action. How do we pay our gratitude forward?
Saying thank you is a good beginning. We can write a thank you note to a hospital, to our doctor, to anyone we see helping in a way we cannot. We can bring food to elders in our community still adhering to social distancing rules. We can share masks, gloves, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies. We can send a gift of appreciation, volunteer our time in a way that feels right for us, or donate to a cause that moves us.
With a little thought, we will find a way to move from guilt to gratitude and then pay it forward in whatever way we can. During the pandemic, we have been asked to stay home, take care of each other, and not make things worse. That counts as paying it forward. Staying home prevents others from getting sick and eases the burden on our hospital system. You can feel good about that.
If you feel guilty that other people are suffering and you are one of the lucky ones, shift from guilt to gratitude. Say to yourself, "I feel so grateful for my luck." Then feel that gratitude deep inside. Let it help you breathe a sigh of relief and feel an impulse to do something that channels your gratitude into a good deed. Sitting around feeling guilty doesn’t help anyone, but gratitude can.
Hendel. H.J. (2018). It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect With Your Authentic Self. New York: Random House