“Maybe there's more we all could have done, but we just have to let the guilt remind us to do better next time.” ― Veronica Roth, Divergent
Guilt is an emotion that we feel when our behaviors goes against our values. Feeling guilty is a normal and common emotion that many of us feel; however, there are many times when guilt turns unhealthy: when we beat ourselves up for making normal mistakes, for living when someone else passes, or when we say “No” to someone who wanted to hang out. This article will explain the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt and offer ways to change and control your thinking.
As imperfect humans, we many times find ourselves making mistakes. When this happens, we have thoughts like, “I shouldn’t have done that”, “I need to apologize”, or “(S)he isn’t going to like me anymore after s(he) knows what I did in my past”. Through a therapist’s lens, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a type of therapy that focuses on how your thoughts shape our emotions which then shape our behaviors, explains that these thoughts will then lead to how you feel.
A common and healthy emotion that many of us feel when our behaviors don’t coincide with our values or morals is guilt. The feeling of guilt says “I know I shouldn’t have done that”. This is a normal and common emotion. What would happen if you didn’t have this emotion? You would likely be unaware of how your actions impact others, yourself or the world and have no reason to change your behavior.
Feeling guilty is a normal human response. When we feel guilty, we have the opportunity to change our behavior, make up for the mistake we made, and plan or choose to do differently in the future. However, there are times when feeling guilty can become unhealthy.
Unhealthy guilt stems from feeling guilty about behaviors that don’t necessarily go against your values or beliefs. It means feeling guilty simply by beating yourself up for making a mistake, or for feeling bad for sticking up for yourself, or for putting boundaries where boundaries are needed to be placed.
Many times, people with perfectionistic personalities or behaviors, people-pleasing tendencies, and “heroes” in dysfunctional families can silently suffer from unhealthy guilt. The effects of this can be detrimental and can include any of the following:
Example: Survivor’s Guilt.
Survivor’s guilt is feeling guilty for living when someone else didn’t. Although that may
sound harsh to read, feeling guilt after someone else passes is a normal response to
grief but can often lead to unhealthy emotions and behaviors.
Ways to Overcome Unhealthy Guilt:
Identify the thought.
We can’t change anything without having the awareness that the change needs to happen. To first change a thought, we have to identify what the thought is. Let’s use this example: You have worked 52 hours this week and had plans to meet with friends on Friday night for dinner and drinks out. By the time Friday is here, you are exhausted and aren’t looking forward to expending the energy to a group of people. You then decide to cancel and ask to reschedule the dinner. You have thoughts like “I’m such a horrible friend,” and “I’m so ridiculous”.
Find the evidence for the thought.
Ask yourself, "Why is this thought true?" This exercise should only include factual evidence as to why your thought is true. When looking at the example from above, can you come up with a fact about why "I'm such a horrible friend" is a true statement? If no, move to the next paragraph and ask yourself what the evidence is that thought is not true.
Find the evidence against for the thought.
Still using the example above, finding evidence why this thought isn't true is typically the hardest. It forces yourself to think about the thought from a different lens or perspective. Some facts why "I'm such a horrible friend" isn't true could be the following:
When the negative thoughts keep reoccurring, the first step, again, is to notice that they are there. Once you've gone through the steps above, identify a more helpful thought such as, "I know I'm a good friend because I've spent time with them recently and have been with them through many hard things." Doing this for each negative thought will allow you to see it from a different perspective, even if you don't believe it 100%. There was a time when we were young where we didn't believe every negative thing about us. We believe what we continue to tell ourselves so once you start speaking kindly, you will start to notice a shift in perspective and in the way you see yourself in the eyes of other people,
Use this replacement thought each time you have the guilt-based thought.
Repetition is going to be key, especially for the thoughts that are deep in your core. Catching yourself in negative thought cycles will help relieve guilt by rationalizing the thought and really making yourself think about whether it's your perception or if there are facts backing up your thinking.
Being aware of your thoughts and learning how to change them can prevent the behaviors and symptoms that stem from repetitive unhealthy guilt. Guilt is acknowledging that your behaviors aren't aligning with the way you want to live or what you know is right. With guilt, you are then able to change your behavior and become a better version of yourself, if you choose to. Unhealthy guilt, however, is based on negative perceptions of self and can turn into shame really quickly.
If you struggle with unhealthy guilt or negative thought cycles that prevent you from enjoying things in life, making changes, or moving forward in many areas, seeing a counselor or coach may be a next step.
Robin Helget, LMSW, CPT
Therapist. Millennial. Social Worker. Dog Mom. Friend. Sister. Empath. INFJ. Lover of ice cream.