Guilt is a very familiar feeling for so many of us.
I have felt a lot of guilt in my life – about things I’ve done wrong when I didn’t really know better, and things I’ve taken responsibility for that were not mine to take ownership of. I’ve felt guilty for saying no; guilty for asking for help; guilty for struggling; guilty for not being honest. I’ve felt guilty for not calling someone, and for calling someone; for speaking out, for not speaking out. Guilty for sharing, for not sharing; for wanting more; for forgetting someone’s birthday; having needs and feeling hurt, annoyed or resentful. Lots of guilt!
In most of my therapeutic work, we discuss guilt. Whether my clients feel they’ve failed to meet the expectations of others, or are carrying a sense of responsibility for something they haven’t actually done wrong, guilt features in all therapeutic journeys. Guilt has a huge impact on mental health, which is why it is so important to address it. Often we give great weight to these sorts of feelings, believing that if we feel guilty, we must be guilty. Let me tell you this:
- Feelings aren’t facts.
- You might feel guilty – but it doesn’t mean you are.
- If you’re finding ways to punish yourself to bring some sort of equilibrium, this will negatively impact your self- esteem.
Guilt is not intended to act like a big black rock for you to carry around for your whole life. When guilt sits in your stomach, you feel like you’ve done something wrong. Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t. But regardless of whether you’ve committed a crime, or just feel guilty because your moods have been low and people around you haven’t had the best of you for a few days, that sensation needs addressing.
Too often guilt goes unchallenged. In fact, challenging the feeling of guilt has been life-changing for me. Now, I want to share an insight that changed the entire way I experience guilt: guilt is there to prompt us, not to shame us. It serves as a flag that there’s a feeling that needs to be addressed by taking action.
I created a technique to help with how I responded to guilt. I still use it often and recommend it to my clients. I use the acronym ACT to remind myself that guilt is there to prompt me and not serve as a constant reminder of how undeserving I am of the good things in my life.
A = address the guilt
Imagine the guilt as a sooty lump of coal. Now take that lump of coal in your hand and ask yourself exactly what it is. What is the belief? What have you done or not done, felt or not felt, thought or not thought? Let’s think of an example: I feel guilty for lying about not being available to celebrate a friend’s birthday when I actually was.
C = compassion
Now, you’ll have to trust me on this next point, because it can feel so hard to believe. Whatever you feel guilty about, you are deserving of compassion. Whether you have stolen a penny sweet, evaded responsibility, lied, or hurt a friend – there will be a reason that you deserve compassion somehow.
Without compassion for yourself, you cannot properly let guilt do what it needs to do – and that is to prompt you, not shame you. Think of how you would speak to a friend; how would you advise them if they felt guilty about missing a birthday celebration? What was the bigger picture, the history that may have led to them feeling or acting a certain way?
Injecting compassion isn’t about removing responsibility where it is due. It’s not about excusing or forgetting. It’s about introducing the valuable perspective that is often lost when our self-esteem is low. It’s about remembering that you are human, you are imperfect, you have histories and traumas that get triggered whether you are aware of it or not. Imagine speaking to a murderer on death row, who has spent a life sentence in a cell to account for the lives he viciously claimed. Yet if you heard his story, his history, his shame, his remorse, you’d most likely find compassion.
Compassion doesn’t right a wrong. It acknowledges the inherent worth we all have. You are a complex mess of humanity, of light and dark. You deserve to take responsibility for your wrongs, within reason, and also to let go of responsibility where it’s not due and to experience compassion along the way. You can hold yourself responsible – with compassion. Compassion is the light to the darkness of guilt, bringing clarity and movement to what would otherwise keep you stuck and feeling undeserving of the good things in your life.
I must note briefly here that there are some people who aren’t able to exhibit remorse or guilt. In these instances, there may be a concealing or denial of guilt, a constant blaming on another person to absolve themselves of responsibility. The lack of any true sense of guilt or empathy, where due, tends to be a pathological symptom. These characteristics may require further psychological insight or assessment.
So, back to my example of lying about being available for my friend’s birthday celebration. How might I bring in compassion? Say I had only had three and a half hours’ sleep the night before. I was hormonal, which always has an impact on my ability to think rationally and wait a beat before I respond. Even though I’m a people-pleaser in recovery, I generally try to be honest about my availability and my reasons for not being able to do something. I deserve compassion. I’m low in resources and my fib came from a place of not wanting to offend her. This is not to say it was right to lie, that I did the right thing. Lying conflicted with my own core values and I was responsible for choosing to lie. I can give myself compassion whilst also taking responsibility.
T = tweak something
If guilt is there to prompt you into action, how might you respond to it? Perhaps you’ve identified that the guilt you’ve been carrying isn’t actually your responsibility. How might you relinquish a sense of responsibility, or hand it back to someone else in some way, whether through changing the way you think about it, or through a conversation with that individual or a therapist?
Once you’ve decided to let go of the guilt, put that black, sooty bit of coal down on the floor. It’s not yours anymore. For me, the guilt about lying to my friend is there to prompt me to act. Maybe I drop her a text to say, ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t come tonight. I’m feeling absolutely floored by a few rough nights with the kids and am heading to bed early – but I didn’t want to tell you and upset you. Can we get something in the diary so we can celebrate and have a proper catch-up? I’m sad to miss out and hope you have a fab time.’
A sense of guilt may be prompting you to find new tools or the clarity to deal with the situation differently, should it arise again. In fact, even when you’ve been through the ACT process, that same sense of guilt may pop back up! Remind yourself that you have already addressed it. You’ve taken action, it’s not needed anymore. Often carrying guilt has become a habit that has helped prove your sense of failure or of not being enough. Guilt might have been the lens through which you viewed the world and whether you were worthy of good things. You’ve believed you aren’t worthy of being forgiven, or of forgiving yourself (which, after all, is an act of kindness). Happily, habits can be changed and although guilt has purpose, you don’t need to check yourself into death row over a small act.
Imagine if a friend upset you and you knew their motivations weren’t intentionally cruel. They’ve made a heartfelt apology, yet you keep making them pay, over and over. You ask them for favours at every possible opportunity and use it as an excuse to be irritable and snappy with them. Just when they think you’ve forgiven them and begin to feel secure in your friendship, you remind them of their slip-up. Would that be fair? Would you do this to someone else? No! Then why do you do it to yourself? Blame without compassion will keep you stuck.
I hope that has helped you reframe guilt a little. Next time you feel that familiar wave wash over you, grab that lump of coal in your hand, journey through ACT, and then set it down. When guilt tries to lurch back into your stomach about that same issue, place it down. It has served its purpose. You’ve done your time. You deserve to let yourself off the hook and move on.
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Your worth never changed. Your awareness of it did.
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