There is nothing that ruins joy and calmness quicker than a wave of overcoming guilt.
According to Brene Brown, the definition of guilt is that “I have done something wrong.” Guilt is an emotion that is part of both the cognitive and physical experiences of the mind and body. In other words, unprocessed or unresolved guilt can cause multiples of unnecessary psychological and physical suffering. Simply put, Guilt makes you feel bad, or worse, that you are bad (shame).
For this article, I want to start by separating “I am doing something wrong” into three different categories: 1) Remorse: I have actually done something wrong; 2) The Punishing Ego: What I am thinking and feeling is wrong; and, 3) Manipulation: allowing others to make you feel bad about yourself.
1. Remorse: I have actually done something wrong
Let’s start with the first one: I have actually done something wrong. When you have done something wrong most of us experience remorse (deep regret). I am sure that you can think of many examples, here is one: You are having an online affair, and you got caught by your significant other.
In this situation, you can do one of two things. A) act like it was no big deal and deny your behaviors; or B) address the situation, admit and apologize (make amends) to the person that you have hurt.
Be honest with yourself. Which response would you choose, A or B? Why do you think people would pick A? Because it can be painful and even terrifying to face your guilt. Choice A may be more common than you think. Regrettably, this is a type of avoidance that has long-term side effects.
Avoiding what you have done wrong will not dissipate your guilt. Rather, avoidance (or denial) will perpetuate guilt for a long time; and, if you practice deflecting guilt for things you have done wrong, then the side effects become cumulative. Meaning the effects get worse over time.
However, if you know someone who states they do not feel guilty or says they feel justified in what they are doing, they may be one of three things. 1) In denial of their guilt, 2) the guilt is not in their conscious awareness (repression), or 3) they are purposely suppressing it (shame).
Furthermore, if someone genuinely does not feel any guilt, be cautious with this person. They are likely to have a personality disorder (PD); meaning that they have difficulty functioning well in normal social interactions. For example, in addition to difficulties with feeling remorse, another symptom of a PD is a person who will make you feel bad when you have done nothing wrong (see manipulation below).
Another tactic that some people will do to justify when they have done something wrong is scapegoating. Scapegoating is a way to make someone else feel lesser than you. Scapegoating is also a form of externalization. Externalization is a way of removing the guilt from one’s inner world by not allowing the guilt to live inside them. One way to scapegoat or externalize is to blame others for your actions or behaviors. When you externalize your guilt, you think you have distinguished it; but what you are doing is suppressing then projecting it. This means that you have taken it from your conscious awareness and buried it in your unconscious (avoidance).
But, just because you have suppressed or buried your guilt does not mean that it goes away.
For instance, imagine that your car is making a noise. If you ignore it, what will happen? That’s right. The noise will get louder and louder or something will malfunction or eventually break. Just like ignoring guilt for things that you have done wrong the problem does not go away. Unresolved and suppressed guilt can make you mentally and physically ill. Meaning the guilt is still there and tends to surfaces as anxiety.
One way that humans manage their anxiety (and trauma) is through addictive behaviors, such as substance abuse or behavioral addictions (e.g., gambling, shopping, porn). These addictions help keep the guilt and related anxiety from surfacing into the conscious awareness.
Making amends for your remorse
However, making amends for what you have done can only happen when you start by being honest with yourself and admit that you were in the wrong.
A question was posed to me: but what if the person that I have hurt is no longer alive?
I recommend writing a letter to the deceased. The letter is designed to express your feelings about what you have done rather than keeping them bottled up inside. This type of reflective writing can help to clarify your thoughts that you might not be aware of when speaking or thinking your thoughts.
2. Punishing Ego: what I am thinking and feeling is wrong
The punishing ego (also known as the superego) is a type of guilt that is not always in your conscious awareness although it is based in similar concepts of remorse guilt – I have done something wrong.
Here are some examples:
- You want to break up with someone or end a bad marriage, but you are worried about what others will think of you. This guilt can be so punishing that even the thought of leaving an oppressive relationship (to have a better life) will raise your anxiety above what you can tolerate. So instead, you decide to stay put and avoid (medicate) the guilt.
- You are angry at someone you are supposed to “only love.” When this happens, unconscious guilt tells you that you are not allowed to feel anything bad toward this person that you love. For example, you are angry at a parent, a child, or a significant other. Nonetheless, all humans have multiple and complex emotions, and acknowledging how these emotions manifest in your body prevents unnecessary guilt and suffering.
- A colleague of mine, D. M. Stone shared her story of guilt. She stated that she was taught that “women are always supposed to be nice and the peacekeeper of the family.” This is a type of sociocultural genderizing guilt. “Women are the glue that holds the family together. Women are supposed to put their own needs aside for others. If you are confident enough to speak up [in any situation] and stand up for yourself, you are then labeled as a bitch.” This type of punishing guilt can prevent women from feeling worthy, confident, and empowered.
- What do you punish yourself for?
Guilt has a way of burying many emotions, and emotions are very human. Everyone experiences some kind of emotion all the time. This type of repression (avoiding/burying emotions) is very cultural (meaning we learn from role models and socialization). And, just like remorse guilt, repression (out of conscious awareness) of emotions (anger, fear, guilt, shame) can cause or exasperate chronic pain and chronic illness. Often, medical providers will treat patients complaining of chronic symptoms with medication or surgery without first asking the patient, “Tell me, what is going on in your life.”
3. Manipulation: Allowing others to make me feel bad about myself
When someone is saying or doing something to you to make you feel guilty, this is a form of manipulation. For example, “you’re the one who put me in a bad mood.” (As stated earlier, manipulation can sometimes come from someone that is abusive and may have a PD; but not always).
Another example of manipulative behavior is when someone uses terms such as always or never; “you are never there for me” or “you are always nagging at me.” This is often heard when couples are arguing and are trying to make the other feel bad (guilt).
Fortunately, you are the one who gets to choose how to respond to manipulative guilt. Ideally, the response toward manipulation should be to never engage with the manipulation. However, what people tend to do is feed into it the manipulation. You likely defend yourself, maybe get angry, even take on the behaviors of the manipulator just to get them to back off. However, the person who is trying to manipulate you to feel bad has not earned your explanation. In other words, practice not engaging with the manipulator.
Remember, manipulation words that make you feel bad can be very harmful and are emotionally abusive.
What Guilt Does to the Mind and Body
When you are feeling guilty, the guilt can contribute to recurring deficits thinking (putting yourself down). For example, you may be ruminating (living in the past) and/or, worrying about something that has not yet happened, may not happen, and acting as if it is happening (anxiety).
Guilt is one of many emotions; emotions live in your body. Unprocessed emotions (such as guilt) are the same as avoided emotions (suppressed). Experiencing your emotions (not expressing) is a human necessity. Emotions are there, whether you avoid them or not. And, as explained earlier, unprocessed (avoided) emotions (guilt, shame, anger, sadness, etc.) can cause or exasperate physical pain and/or illness sometimes known as chronic symptoms or medically unexplained symptoms.
Kicking Guilt to the Curb!
Getting rid of your guilt allows you to feel more joy and experience less human suffering. But remember, you cannot change what you are not aware of and do not accept (seek counseling). And what are the consequences of experiencing a long life filled with guilt and other disruptive emotions?
So, what can you do? Kick your guilt to the curb. Give it up. Do not let it own you. Make amends if you need to. Pay attention to how often you feel bad. Ask yourself why am I letting this consume me? Also, ask yourself, does your feeling guilty serve a purpose? What are the benefits of my guilt? Maybe maintaining your guilt is what is keeping you connected to your loved ones?
Using Mindful Awareness
Mindful awareness is simply being aware of what is happening in the present moment without judgment. In the case of experiencing (rather than avoiding) your guilt, the goal is to practice and develop mindful awareness of your guilt from an intrapsychic perspective. In other words, paying attention to the physical experience of your emotions in the present moment without judgment (or guilt :-).
Being mindfully aware of when you are feeling guilty. What type of guilt are you experiencing? Is it remorse, the punishing ego, or due to manipulation? Maybe it is a combination? Where do you experience the guilt physically in your body? For instance, did you have shortness of breath, racing heart, tightness in your chest, tightness in your stomach, sternum, neck, back, or head?
Start by asking yourself: how is this [guilt] serving me? Then answer yourself by saying: It’s not! By just asking and answering yourself, it can be profoundly helpful. Facing and processing guilt also changes the wiring of your brain (neural connections). And it is a great way to reduce unnecessary suffering.
Remember, do not defend yourself to someone who is using manipulation to make you feel bad about yourself or is telling you that you are doing something wrong when you are not (it is their opinion/reality, not yours; do not take it on). Most importantly, own up to your guilt if you have actually done something wrong. Make the necessary amends. Make your life one that is guilt-free.
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