success stories

Posted December 9, 2003

Guilt: Something Everyone Should Understand Better to Make Their Life Better

Handling Guilt

Sheila M. Harron, Ph.D.
Vol. VI, No. 5 November - December, 2002
Taken From the St. Luke’s Institute in Silver Springs, Maryland

People usually feel a sense of guilt when they realize they have done something wrong. Guilt helps a person to live according to societal, moral and personal norms. It can smooth some rough spots in interpersonal relationships through expressions of sorrow or requests for forgiveness. It reminds individuals when they fall short of their aspirations. Guilt, like shame, functions as an emotion of self-evaluation. With shame the individual feels not that he/she has done something wrong but that he/she is wrong. Sometimes the two feelings intertwine in complicated ways.

Unhealthy Guilt

Unhealthy guilt cripples those who live with it as they ruminate endlessly and hold themselves responsible for negative past events. For example, when a rape victim thinks continuously "I shouldn't have been alone at that time of night"; a man whose wife has been angry and withdrawn thinks regretfully over and over, "I should have called her when I knew I was going to be late;" a Sister who was driving too fast and damaged the convent car, eighteen months later does not seem able to let go of her judgmental thoughts, "How could I have done that?" When people live in these unhealthy guilt experiences they feel depressed, lock themselves into the past and stay there with their failure or transgression. Sometimes individuals unconsciously block success, squash self-esteem and sabotage relationships because they feel deserving of punishment.

Unhealthy guilt is guilt for something that is not actually wrong, and that has an intensity out of proportion for what happened or has no end in sight. The rape victim feels guilty but she did nothing wrong. The husband feels intense guilt for accidental or thoughtless behavior as if he had committed a much more serious transgression. The Sister kept feeling guilty about the damaged car, many months after the accident and long after the car had been repaired.

Why does such unhealthy guilt burden people? Some common factors include control issues, perfectionism, fear of letting go of the past and a sense of being responsible for the feelings and reactions of others.

Individuals often feel guilty to preserve an illusion of control. The rape victim blames herself because it is too frightening to realize that rape can be random and arbitrary. She cannot control the world around her nor can she prevent it from happening again. Along the same lines, children or teenagers who endure sexual abuse often feel guilty for the sexual activity because it would be too disturbing to realize that they could not control what their parents or other adults did to them. It's easier to believe that they were somehow at fault.

Perfectionism contributes to unhealthy guilt. Perfectionists live with an inner critic who berates them for falling short of unrealistic ideals. They feel guilty over things that do not merit guilt. Perfectionism also makes it difficult to let go of guilt. A sort of reverse self-importance sets in whereby what the person did, said, or failed to do was so terrible that it could never be forgiven. In truth, their pride was hurt. It is more gratifying to endure the pain of the guilt than to accept themselves as vulnerable, flawed, imperfect human beings. It is more important to hold on to impossible goals through guilt than it is to risk being ordinary.

Another source for unhealthy guilt is fear of letting go of the past. This fear can be connected with a belief that in letting go of the past the persons involved do not acknowledge the importance of what they did wrong. For example, a woman who had an abortion years ago cannot forgive herself because somehow it wouldn't be honoring the depth of her transgression. How can she allow herself to be happy when she ended a life? The reluctance to let go of the past can also mask a fear of getting on with life and facing the future.

Finally, the irrational belief of holding themselves responsible for the feelings and behaviors of others contributes significantly to unhealthy guilt. Because someone is angry with an individual does not mean that they did something wrong; because someone gives them the cold shoulder does not mean they deserve it.

Authentic Guilt

Authentic guilt signals genuine wrongdoing and flows from a well-formed conscience. When people recognize guilt, they can assess behaviors or omissions honestly. They can acknowledge wrongdoing internally and to others involved, express sorrow, ask for forgiveness from God and others and seek to make atonement. The alert reader will recognize some of the Twelve Steps in this description of authentic guilt. Then, they let it go. Part of responding to authentic guilt is to let it go, trusting that God forgives. With "good guilt", individuals do not keep returning to their misdeeds; they accept them and move humbly into the future.

When people get stuck in an unhealthy guilt cycle, they need to reflect carefully on the guilt feelings and ask: are they authentic? Is the guilt out of proportion? Are they holding onto guilt for too long, punishing themselves for something they did years ago? What do they get out of beating themselves? Is it a matter of pride that they can not accept themselves as forgiven by God?

Once someone recognizes that guilt is unhealthy it won't necessarily melt away. Rather, they have to make a conscious effort to gently, firmly, and consistently stop guilty thinking. Gradually, when guilt loses its hold, they can devote more energy toward creatively living in the present and more freely moving toward the future.

Sheila M. Harron, Ph.D., is the Coordinator of Outpatient Services at Saint Luke Institute