You Shouldn’t Follow Every Feeling
I’m a big fan of feelings. As a counselor and Denver therapist, I want to affirm that feelings carry important information. Knowing this is a crucial part of emotional intelligence. Being in tune with our feelings can help us understand ourselves, have empathy for other people, as well as help us live a values-based life. However, some kinds of feelings, like unhealthy guilt, are more complicated than others. Sometimes we need to figure out if our feelings are worth listening to and taking guidance from, or if we need to override them in order to be our best selves.
Like feelings of depression or anxiety, guilt is one of those potentially confusing feelings. Believe it or not, some types of guilt are actually healthy and good; healthy guilt can help us be better people. However, some types of unhealthy guilt are not at all useful or constructive. In fact, unhealthy guilt can even trap us in bad situations by stealing our voices and our power.
Unhealthy guilt, and it’s even nastier sidekick, shame, can lead you to beat yourself up for everything. Or it can make you take responsibility for things you shouldn’t. Guilt and shame might even heap more and more unhealthy expectations onto yourself until you buckle under the pressure. Furthermore, it can cause you to fail in setting appropriate boundaries with people who want more from you than it’s healthy for you to give.
Figuring out the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt is essential in order to stay in a good place mentally and emotionally. How can you tell whether your feelings of guilt are something you should listen to, or whether you should push them away?
Understanding and Embracing “Healthy” Guilt
First of all, what is guilt? I think of “guilt” as being that sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach that tells you the following messages: “You’re wrong,” “You’re out of line,” “You screwed up.” But sometimes these messages are…right. We all mess up sometimes.
Healthy guilt is the voice of your conscience, letting you know that you need to do better next time. In fact, responsible, caring, hard working people tend to feel guilty on a regular basis. Conversely, people who don’t struggle with guilt often don’t have inner emotional brakes that tell them to “stop.” They may even have difficulty empathizing with others. As they sail through life, guilt free, they may never fully understand the consequences of their actions…. but hurt others in the process.
So, in that sense, guilt can be a very positive thing. Guilt helps us monitor ourselves and do well by others. However, that’s not the whole story. In addition to good, appropriate, or “healthy guilt,” there is also inappropriate guilt.
Understanding Unhealthy Guilt
Did you have one or more parent(s) who tended to blame others for their problems, or make other people “responsible” for their actions or feelings? Blamers tend to raise children who are little guilt-factories. Even if your parents were lovely, at some point in your life, you might have been involved in a relationship or social system that was highly critical of you — leading you to doubt yourself or blame yourself for everything.
Another thing that can be true is if you are a highly conscientious, responsible, and competent person, you may tend to take on more than you can carry. When you inevitably fail — because you’re trying to do more than anyone possibly expects of you — you might feel guilty that you couldn’t do it all. (And if this is sounding familiar, please oh, please listen to my “perfectionism” podcast.)
There are many scenarios that can lead a person to struggle with unhealthy guilt. Pay attention if you’ve lived through these life experiences: having parents who regularly assign blame, having critical partners, or just being a supernaturally competent person. These stressful situations could really be detrimental to your sense of peace. In these situations, you may be more likely to feel inappropriate guilt, accept inappropriate blame from others, and criticize yourself for things that are not your fault.
The Consequences of Unhealthy Guilt
Unhealthy guilt bubbles up to a toxic level when you feel overly responsible for other people’s feelings or misfortune even when, logically, you have no control over the situation at all. This kind of guilt leads you to “help” others by trying to solve their problems or sacrificing your own needs in favor of theirs. Unfortunately, this only serves to enable bad behaviors, which paradoxically perpetuates long-term suffering.
Inappropriate guilt disempowers you and can lead you to stay in abusive or unhealthy situations. Guilt can tell you that standing up for yourself or setting healthy boundaries is “being mean.” Guilt can send you the harmful message to try a little harder and heap more on yourself, even in situations where you are being mistreated.
In fact, guilt and depression often walk hand in hand. This terrible team of guilt and depression can easily trick you into believing that everything is your fault and that you are a terrible person. Guilt may even metastasize into shame.
This kind of negative self-talk can breed an avalanche of consequences because when you genuinely feel like a horrible person, you will make choices that will often lead to negative life experiences. Then when you get “evidence” that you are awful, inappropriate guilt and depression become that much harder to fight back against and a downward spiral of shame begins.
Author and speaker, Brene Brown, is familiar with the terrible aftermath of shame and has offered sound advice when dealing with shame. You won’t want to miss out on learning how to be saved out of shame in her awesome TED talk.
While no one wants to stay in a place of shame, there is good news: there are ways of dealing with guilt that can actually lead to personal growth.
Healthy Strategies to Handle Unhealthy Guilt
Don’t let unhealthy guilt grow into soul-crushing, toxic shame. Instead, try these strategies to bounce unhealthy guilt out of your life for good:
Get Some Perspective
One trick that works well for clients who are struggling with guilt is to think about the guilt-inducing situation as if it were happening to a close friend. After you imagine your friend living through the same experience, how would you feel about your friend under the same circumstances? Chances are, you would extend more empathy toward a friend than you would yourself.
Would you feel legitimately annoyed with your friend for doing what they did? Would you want them to try a little harder next time? Or would you look at the situation and think to yourself that they didn’t do anything wrong? In fact, you realize that they shouldn’t be so hard on themselves, which leads you towards self-compassion. Being kinder to yourself starts with embracing your own self-worth (and owning your awesome) which allows you to finally quiet the noisy inner-critic.
Once you try this exercise, it also may be important to ask others for their perspective. This might sound weird, but there are situations where it can be confusing to figure out if you’re in the wrong or not using the above strategy. Uncertainty about whether your guilt is legitimate or not is more common when you feel guilty a lot. For those who tend to be self-critical on a regular basis, it’s hard to know if you’ve actually messed up, or if you might be taking responsibility for something that you shouldn’t.
In this case, run it past a friend, like your coach or therapist, or anyone who you trust to give you truthful, yet non-judgmental constructive feedback. They will help you see the situations with a fresh perspective and help you evaluate whether your guilt is constructive or destructive.
Cultivate a Growth Mindset
When you really do mess up (and it’s not if, but when — because we all do), do not engage in inner verbal abuse or beat yourself up. That’s not constructive. Instead, recognize that mistakes are precious learning opportunities, and give yourself the same reassuring or motivating pep talk you might give a friend.
For example, help yourself to learn and grow by saying, “I can do better than this.” Or, you can reassure yourself by saying, “I did the best I could, and it really, genuinely wasn’t my fault.” Letting go of what you simply cannot control can be very empowering. Good guilt will have done its inspiring job and led you towards positive change, while unhealthy guilt will be shown the door. Either way, you get to say good-bye to guilt, and start feeling better again.
Work on Boundaries
Lots of people are very pleased to hand over their issues, feelings, bad habits, expectations, and needs to a competent, loving person like you… and have it all be your problem to fix instead of theirs. If your guilty feelings are usually attached to having to please others by performing in certain ways or doing things to make sure that nothing upsets someone else in your life, you might want to do some personal growth work around boundaries.
Learning how to set healthy limits with loved ones is good for you, and it’s also really beneficial for others too. This is true, especially if you’ve been “over-functioning” to compensate for someone else’s “under-functioning.” When you lay down the load you’ve been carrying on their behalf, they’ll be more motivated to pick up what’s theirs and start moving forward under their own steam. As a result, YOU, my friend, will be released of your unhealthy guilt. (Cue choir of angels).
There’s light and dark in everything. Though it often feels unpleasant to be in a state of “guilt,” it’s an invitation to evolve. You’re being challenged to do better next time, or become more compassionate towards yourself. Either way, you grow.
All the best to you on your journey!
xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.