How to Free Yourself of Misplaced Guilt
Why you feel guilty when you did nothing wrong.
Posted Nov 23, 2020
Do you find yourself apologizing when you have done nothing wrong? Do you carry a deep sense of guilt even without regret from any of your choices or behaviors? If so, you may be damaging your confidence and self-esteem. To deal with this feeling, you must first understand where it comes from. This post will highlight two different factors that can make you feel guilty when you have done nothing wrong.
Guilt as a defense against feelings of helplessness
This is most common with survivors of trauma. Victims of crimes, such as robbery or rape, as well as survivors of traumatic disasters, such as terror attacks, airplane/train crashes, and tsunamis, often blame themselves for their trauma. Sometimes they blame themselves for being there. “I should have stayed home," “I shouldn’t have gone on that airplane." Here is a conversation between Selma and her therapist shortly after she was raped.
Selma: It’s my fault.
Doc: How is it your fault?
Selma: I ran out of diapers for my baby and had to go out to an all-night drugstore to get some.
Doc: So, if you never run out of diapers, you will never get raped again.
Selma: I was dressed for work. I had a dress on.
Doc: So, if you never wear a dress and never run out of diapers you will never get raped again.
Selma: I was wearing make-up.
Doc: If you never run out of diapers and never get dress up you will never get raped. Right?
The above conversation demonstrates how victims attempt to blame themselves in an attempt to empower themselves. Selma is trying to construct a situation she can control that will guarantee that she will never get raped again. She is trading off helplessness and disempowerment for guilt. Trauma survivors must learn to accept their limitations and not see them as defects. Selma cannot prevent herself absolutely from getting raped again, but she can do everything within her power to prevent it.
This is what people mean when they accuse others of “making them feel guilty." It can be done directly, such as by blaming you for something you didn’t do. This is demonstrated in this discussion between Ralph and Joanne after they arrived late to a wedding and missed the ceremony.
Ralph: I knew we would be late. I am so embarrassed.
Jo: We did the best we could.
Ralph: Well I was ready.
Jo: Are you saying it was my fault that we were late?
Ralph: You should have skipped the yoga this morning.
Jo: We agreed to leave at 11.
Ralph: That’s because I knew you would have a fit if you didn’t get to do your yoga.
Joanne was unable to change the fact that Ralph saw her as the cause of them missing the ceremony so she apologized to end the discussion. This caused her to doubt herself and question whether she was selfish because she loves yoga. This left her feeling guilty. But the indirect projection of guilt is much more effective at making innocent people feel guilty.
One very effective indirect way of making others feel guilty is by expressing frequent disappointment. This is apparent in the below dialogue where Peggy is “making Jose feel guilty” about her not enjoying their anniversary weekend.
Jose: I had a great time in Hawaii. Didn’t you?
Peg: I am glad that you had a good time.
Jose: You didn’t have a good time?
Peg: It was fine.
Jose: I thought you wanted to go to Hawaii?
Peg: I wanted to go to Maui.
Jose: I am sorry. There were no hotels available this weekend on Maui.
Peg: A good husband would have found one.
Without actually accusing him of anything Peggy leaves Jose feeling like he has done something wrong and that this is because he is a failure as a husband. This is a reaction to his taking her to Hawaii for the weekend.
Rejecting projected guilt
Individuals who “make you feel guilty” often do so to avoid taking responsibility for things that went wrong. They need you to feel guilty so that they don’t have to. This is very common with individuals with personality disorders but can occur in anyone. If you are in the position of having guilt projected onto you, then in order to shed these feelings you will need to accept that you are feeling someone’s emotions and recognize them as not being your own. What feels like guilt to you is someone else avoiding taking responsibility for their choices or behaviors.
In the above example, Peggy could have found a way to enjoy the trip to Hawaii even though they didn’t go to the island she preferred, but instead, she chose to feel sorry for herself and blame Jose. For Jose to shed his feeling of guilt, he will have to accept that Peggy needs to see him as guilty even though he didn’t do anything wrong. He will probably not be able to change her feelings, but he can accept that she needs to see things differently from him, even though he did nothing wrong. Understanding that Peggy’s needs do not reflect bad behavior on his part, but rather an emotional need that is hers will bring some relief.
In a similar fashion, to relieve her sense of guilt, Joanne will have to accept that Ralph cannot take responsibility for being late to the wedding so he must blame someone else. This does not mean that Joanne did anything wrong. Loving yoga is not a crime. It is just that Ralph needed to blame someone else.
The ability to understand projected guilt and free yourself is a powerful tool that will help you find temporary relief when others project guilt onto you. A more enduring solution will require your partner to learn to take responsibility for their choices and behaviors and not blame others. This is their work to do. Or not.