Being raised in the south, I am well acquainted with guilt. Generations of southern moms have honed its use as a parenting tool. Grandparents, as well, find it motivational. Yet too often what gets called guilt isn’t really guilt at all. Let’s explore this.
In my work with clients, even those well beyond the south, it is common to hear the statement, “I feel so guilty.” “What is guilt?” I ask. And the conversation proceeds something like the following…
“I feel bad.”
“Okay, so guilt is a feeling that does not feel good. What do you think its purpose is?”
“Well, I’ve done something wrong.”
“So, this feeling calls your attention to something you’ve done wrong. What do you think that is meant to do?”
“It lets me know I don’t want to do that again. And it lets me know I’ve hurt someone.”
“Guilt helps you learn of choices you don’t want to repeat in the future, and it lets you know when you have caused a wound to a relationship.”
“Yeah, and I can say ‘I’m sorry.”
“Guilt also prompts you to make amends. Hmmm. Overall, this sounds fairly positive. While is does not feel good for a time, guilt actually sounds like a helpful emotion. It helps us to learn from our behavior and nurture our relationships. So why is it that sometimes guilt feels so yucky and won’t seem to go away?”
“Sometimes I have a hard time forgiving myself.”
“Tell me more.”
“I feel bad that I can’t make everyone happy. For example, a friend has invited me to attend a BBQ with her. I’d really like to go, but my son has a birthday party earlier that afternoon, and I know this will wear me out.”
“That’s a helpful example. Let’s apply your definition of guilt to it. You definitely feel bad. So you have that part. What is it you have done wrong?”
“Well, I haven’t done anything wrong. I could go, but I know I’d just feel exhausted and resentful.”
“If you said yes to her invitation when you really mean no – not because you don’t want to go but because you simply would not have the energy – you would end up feeling resentful toward your friend, who had done nothing wrong. This sounds different from the guilt you described earlier. What do you think the purpose of this feeling is?”
“I don’t know. It just feels bad, even though I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“There’s no lesson to be learned or choice to make differently next time.”
“Yeah, but I know she’s disappointed. And I am, too.”
“You both wish it could be different, yet you’ve not harmed your friend. You have nothing to apologize for.”
“I know she won’t be mad at me.”
“Even if she were, would it change the reality?”
“No. I still wouldn’t have the energy to do both.”
“We aren’t able to do all we wish we could. So how do you get past this feeling?”
“I’ve just got to let it go.”
“Admit you’re human.”
“Yeah. I know.”
As you’ve seen through this conversation, we call guilt two very different things. They may feel the same, but they’re not. To help clients start distinguishing between the two, I suggest we call them True Guilt and False Guilt.
True Guilt is actually a helpful emotion. It lets us know when we’ve missed the mark and caused hurt to a relationship, even if the other person does not know it. True Guilt prompts us to make amends and helps us learn of choices we do not wish to repeat.
In contrast, False Guilt is not helpful at all. It makes us feel bad when we have done nothing wrong. The other person may not be happy, yet we have done nothing wrong. False Guilt can, therefore, feel paralyzing – like a straight jacket. Changing our choice is not the path to freedom. Doing so would likely cause other problems, such as resentment or anger, which we would take out on ourselves or others. Admitting we are human – imperfect, with limited resources – and accepting that reality is the only way to get the straight jacket of False Guilt off. You have to put it down.
So next time you are feeling guilty – pause and examine it. Have you done anything wrong? Is it True Guilt or False Guilt? You may be surprised at what you discover.
In both my professional and personal life, I have found we tend to experience False Guilt much more often that True Guilt. So catch it – in the act! Give yourself permission to admit the truth. You are human. Put the straight jacket down.