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Understand Guilt, and change it to its healthier alternative for your health & well-being

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Looking back, there was one emotion that dominated my life for many years. As we grow up, we begin to experience life and form our picture of the world we live in. We receive through interpersonal interaction, experiences etc with  parents and the nuclear family (primary caregivers), school friends, extended family,  teachers etc and as life progresses through friends, work and media,society at large.

I always felt I had done something wrong and because of that I am not good and not good enough. Now the first part of this statement was at times true, I had often misbehaved or done something that I felt bad about. In other situations, I hadn’t actually done anything wrong at all, but I was led to believe my thoughts and feelings were wrong and to be condemned. The second half of the statement, however, I now know, is completely irrational and illogical as we are all good enough. These thoughts and feelings were the hallmarks of a deep sense of Guilt I felt in the past and still at times do.

Guilt is commonly defined as The fact, or feeling of having committed a specified or implied offense, crime or failed in an obligation. It can also be defined as Cognitive and emotional state produced by thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self and could have done otherwise. Two fitting quotes for guilt are:

Guilt: punishing yourself before God doesn't.

Alan Cohen
 

Guilt can stop us from taking healthy care of ourselves.

Melody Beattie

Like the other emotions, iv looked at, there are different types of guilt, a few being:

Guilt for something you did. The most likely and common reason to feel guilty is that you actually did something wrong. Eg telling a lie or stealing

Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to. You’re thinking about committing an act which is against your own moral code or engages in the dishonest , unfaithful, or illegal behaviour.

Guilt for something you think you did.  Much of the unhappiness we experience is due to our own irrational thoughts about situations.

Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone. This is usually experienced with the passing of a loved one or when something bad happens to a loved one and we feel we should have done more to help.

Guilt that you’re doing better than someone else. The experience of survivor guilt is one recognized by professionals who work with combat veterans who outlive their fellow troops or survivors of a disaster in which others do not survive.

Now, I know I'm not the only one to have suffered from guilt in life, but the thing with guilt is that it is an unhealthy negative emotion that is usually accompanied by Depression and Anxiety and other negative consequences. The anxiety attached to guilt is usually a result of the individual thinking that they might or will repeat the behaviour or thought that triggered the feeling of guilt in the first place. These emotions, when left to stagnate over time, evolves into neurosis as a result of feelings of worthlessness and lack of confidence.In the neurotic stage the thoughts ‘ how did I do that ?’ and will I do that again? Become obsessive and compulsive which in turn intensified, evolving into psychosis.

I'm sure , like myself, no one likes to be controlled by unhealthy emotions, neurosis or psychosis, you would be happy to know that Guilt has a healthier alternative called Remorse. Whereas with Guilt, we assume we have definitely committed a sin and take on more personal responsibility than the situation requires without thinking of the mitigating factors. We also tend to believe that retribution is definitely on its way. When remorseful we are able to consider the behaviour in context and we are able to assume an appropriate level of personal responsibility considering the mitigating factors without thoughts of imminent retribution.

We feel more empowered to face up to the pain that comes with the realisation of wrongdoing, ask for forgiveness, understand the reasons for the wrongdoing and act on the understanding. With remorse, we can make appropriate amends, and not make excuses for our behaviour or get all defensive about it.

So if you find yourself feeling guilty about something you did, remember that you do not have to feel that way and that it does not help you or anyone else to feel that way. Instead, we can stop the psychologically damaging moralistic condemnation of ourselves and make the appropriate amends for our wrongdoings in a healthy Remorseful manner for our health and well-being.
 

Author: Jarell Bempong, Therapist & Coach at www.insight-therapy.com