You Shouldn't Follow Every Feeling
I'm a big fan of feelings. Feelings carry important information. Feelings help us understand ourselves, have empathy for other people, and feelings can help us live a values-based life. However, some kinds of feelings 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, and can even trap us in bad situations; 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 take responsibility for things you shouldn't. Or heap more and more onto yourself until you buckle under the pressure. Or fail to set boundaries with people who want more from you than it's healthy for you to give.
So 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 that you're wrong. You're out of line. You screwed up. And sometimes… it's 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, hardworking 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…. and 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 parents 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.)
If you've lived through these life experiences: having blaming parents, critical partners, or just being a supernaturally competent person, 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
Toxic, unhealthy guilt bubbles up when you feel 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 tell you 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 team 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.
But Brene Brown is here to save you from shame. Seen her amazing TED talk about shame yet? Check it out:
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 is to think about the guilt-inducing situation as if it were happening to a close friend. Imagine your friend living through the same experience, and how you would feel about your friend under the same circumstances.
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 they're feeling bad about, and think to yourself that they didn't do anything wrong and they shouldn't be so hard on themselves?
When in Doubt, Ask For 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; 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, your coach or therapist, or anyone who you trust to give you truthful, yet non-judgmental constructive feedback.
Cultivate a Growth Mindset: When you really do mess up (and not if, but when — we all do) do not engage in inner verbal abuse, and 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 your friend.
For example, help yourself to learn and grow by saying “You can do better than this.” Or, reassure yourself by saying, “You did the best you could, and it really, genuinely wasn't your fault.” Good guilt will have done its inspiring job and led you towards positive change, and 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 be a certain way or do 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 good for them too. 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. And 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