Just because you feel guilty doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. Relax the rules you live by and set yourself free
Imagine just another ordinary day in your life. You wake up at the same time, do your morning routine, and eat breakfast. But then, you get that text. It’s your mother, and you suddenly remember you were supposed to call her yesterday for her birthday. Even without opening the text, you feel a sinking feeling in your chest and stomach.
You imagine your mom sitting all alone in her house, mournfully lamenting her son’s lack of contact on her special day. A shower of self-critical thoughts begins to cascade down upon you. It’s a slow drizzle at first, but by the time you get to work, it’s a downpour of judgmental and harsh attacks on your character. You’re too busy, too selfish, and a bad son or daughter. Yikes.
This is guilt. We all know the feeling, and it is a powerfully absorbing experience. It has a magnifying quality to it, making small errors and oversights seem like glaring assaults on the people we care about. Many people around the world live with a recurring sense of excessive guilt that triggers too easily, lasts too long, and leaves a wreckage of self-esteem and confidence in its wake. The good news is that excessive guilt doesn’t have to rule your life, and freeing yourself from its grasp is entirely possible.
Let’s start with a basic definition – what is guilt? Through countless hours of clinical observation, I’ve found that the emotion of guilt originates from a perception that you’ve done something wrong, which leads to a mixture of anxiety and pressure. The anxiety is based on the prediction that something ‘bad’ will happen. For example, others might be upset, or you might be judged or disliked, or you might feel ashamed of yourself – which leads to a loss of love, connection, opportunity or your status as a ‘good person’. Then there’s the pressure. The pressure to apologise, fix the situation and otherwise ‘make it right’ to experience the relief of absolution.
At the right level, the anxiety and pressure created by guilt can be useful, and can have a positive impact on our relationships. When my son steals his younger brother’s Lego bricks and then sees him sobbing, he might feel some compunction to return the toys and make amends. When you snap at your spouse, sibling, parent or child, you might feel a similar unease until you’ve righted the ship and either apologised or acted with greater patience and kindness.
This is what I call healthy guilt. Healthy guilt creates an invisible forcefield, helping us operate within a band of behaviour that’s aligned with our values. It ensures we’re responsive to the needs of those close to us, and allows us to have warm, positive relationships.
But what happens when guilt goes wrong? Sometimes, our trigger for guilt is too sensitive and fires off inappropriately, or to an extreme degree for minor offences. This is known as excessive guilt – or unhealthy guilt – and is exactly what this Guide can help you with.
To understand whether the guilt you’re experiencing is unhealthy, it’s helpful to think about rules. All guilt essentially occurs when you’ve broken one of your rules. Some rules are valuable and generally support you and others, such as ‘Don’t steal money’ or ‘Don’t verbally attack those you love’, and these rules tend to drive healthy guilt. Other rules, such as ‘You must always say yes’ or ‘Don’t disappoint others’ or ‘Never get angry’ can be toxic cages that keep you trapped in perpetual suffering – and lead to unhealthy guilt.
Identifying when the guilt you’re experiencing is unhealthy or excessive will help you begin to detach from it. In the five-step process below, you’ll learn exactly how to do that. For now, here are a few simple guidelines to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy guilt:
To summarise these distinctions in another way, let’s think back to the example of missing your mother’s birthday. Here’s what the internal voice of healthy guilt might sound like:
I forgot mom’s birthday! Oh man, that’s pretty bad. I feel awful. Ouch. OK, what can I do now to make it right? First things first, I can call her straight away and leave her a voicemail if she doesn’t pick up. When I get home today, I’ll record and send a video of the kids singing her Happy Birthday, that will light her up. And I’m going to put a reminder in my calendar right now for next year so I don’t make this mistake again.
Notice how this voice acknowledges the error, without trying to deny or downplay it. It also focuses primarily on what can be done now to make things right, all without tearing yourself to shreds or verbally abusing yourself. Contrast that voice of healthy guilt with that of unhealthy guilt:
I forgot mom’s birthday! Oh man, that’s terrible. Poor woman. How could I do this to her? She must feel awful. Wow, that’s so bad of me. What the heck was I doing yesterday anyway? Why didn’t I remember? She must be so sad and upset, and it’s my fault. Her health isn’t so good right now anyways, and here I am abandoning her on her birthday, which is only going to make her worse. I always do this kind of thing, I’m so self-absorbed. I’m an awful son/daughter.
Can you feel the difference between these two internal monologues? Can you feel how the second one is heavy like molasses, a burden that makes it hard to take effective, corrective action? In my clinical practice, I’ve seen how this voice of unhealthy guilt can go on for hours or days, leading to prolonged periods of procrastination, avoidance or low mood.
Before we move on, it’s worth clarifying that this Guide isn’t intended for people grappling with serious offences or transgressions. In these cases, necessary and appropriate guilt can sometimes linger for years, and cause a great deal of difficulty and distress. If you’re experiencing this kind of serious, pervasive guilt, it might be helpful to see a therapist to understand and come to terms with what happened.
But if your excessive guilt stems more from minor transgressions and unreasonable rules, such as in the second birthday monologue described above, let’s talk about exactly what to do to free yourself from what’s going on.
What to do
Most commonly, people manage unhealthy, excessive guilt by doing their best to please everyone around them and avoiding upsetting others at all costs. If that sounds like a bad strategy to you, you’re absolutely right. We can do much better.
In fact, it’s possible to use each instance of guilt to clarify your values, determine the rules that you actually want to live by, and free yourself from the perceptions and demands of others. To do this, I will share a five-step process that I’ve used with hundreds of clients to help them liberate themselves from excessive guilt:
1. Acknowledge and allow the guilt
The first step in liberating ourselves from anything is to actually acknowledge and allow it. Initially, you might not even notice you feel guilty. Because the feelings of guilt can be painful, your impulse might be to stay in motion, distract yourself or compulsively apologise. But, instead of reacting to guilt, you should examine it.
Slow down, withdraw from screens and other people, and take a few minutes to be with your own emotions and bodily feelings. What do you notice? Are you uncomfortable? Do you have racing, anxious thoughts? Are you restless or agitated in your body? Do you feel tightness in your chest or throat? Do you have a sinking feeling in your stomach? These are all possible signs of guilt.
Now observe your thoughts – I call this the ‘voice of guilt’, and it’s very important to notice how it’s speaking to you. Recall the example above and the chart differentiating healthy vs unhealthy guilt. Does the voice sound calm and loving, while still recognising you’ve made a mistake? If so, this is probably healthy guilt. Or is it angry and critical, like a raging parent who’s lost it – a chastising voice telling you what you should or shouldn’t have done? If your thoughts are telling you that your actions make you fundamentally selfish, mean or inconsiderate, then it’s most likely unhealthy guilt.
Whatever guilt you’re experiencing, when you notice it arising, you can actually identify it out loud. This is powerful, even if you’re alone. Simply say: ‘Ahh, this is guilt.’ Acknowledgement provides a powerful fuel for change. Allow yourself to sit with the feelings and thoughts, and experience them for a moment. During this step, it’s also important to keep in mind the fallacy of emotional reasoning: just because you feel guilty, doesn’t automatically mean you’ve done something terribly wrong. This leads us to our next step.
2. Identify the rule(s) you’ve broken
This is the next step in neutralising unhealthy guilt because it will give you valuable information about what’s happening and how to deal with it. Figuring out what rule you’ve broken will help you determine if this is healthy or unhealthy guilt – if this is something pointing you towards being your best self, or just another sneaky pattern of perfectionism and self-hatred.
To determine what rule you broke, simply listen to the voice of guilt in your head. It’s going to tell you clearly what you should or shouldn’t have done. Those shoulds and shouldn’ts are your rules. You’ll notice that some rules involve other people – for example, if a friend asks to meet up and you say no because you’re tired, you might feel guilty because your rules include ‘I should always say yes when a friend asks to hang out’ or ‘I shouldn’t do anything to disappoint others.’ Other rules will just involve you and your individual behaviours. For example, if you eat a big hamburger, fries and milkshake, and feel guilty afterwards, you might find that your rules include ‘I shouldn’t eat fast food’ or ‘I should have more self-control.’
Are you getting a sense of how this works? Try it out with a recent scenario when you felt guilty, or with something that used to make you feel guilty in the past. Try and remember what the voice of guilt was saying to you, and identify the underlying rules. Then start trying it when guilt comes up in your day-to-day life. Once you’re able to do this, you’re well on your way to neutralising excessive guilt and feeling happier, freer and more loving with yourself and others.
3. Determine if the guilt is healthy or unhealthy
Remember, healthy guilt is a feeling that arises when you’ve broken a realistic rule that you actually do value and aspire to live by. This guilt is guiding you to get on track and be the kind of person you want to be in the world. It reminds you of what matters most, and inspires you to live in alignment with your values. It’s a positive force for change and is rooted in love – for yourself and for others.
Unhealthy guilt is a form of punishment and self-attack. It can arise when you’ve broken a rule that’s rigid, extreme or not in alignment with what you really value. It can also arise when you’ve broken a rule you do value but, instead of motivating positive change, the guilt becomes excessive and toxic. When we feel unhealthy guilt, we often overestimate how much others are annoyed or hurt by our actions, thereby artificially magnifying our transgressions. We then use this distorted data to conclude that we’ve done something wrong and must be punished for our sins. We think that if we punish ourselves enough, and suffer sufficiently for our badness, then we’ll atone for our transgression. But this approach to improving our relationships or personal actions doesn’t positively influence behaviour, and is rooted in fear.
To determine whether you’re experiencing healthy or unhealthy guilt, it helps to look at the underlying rules that you broke. Look at your list of broken rules and ask yourself: do I want to live by these rules? Do they reflect my values? Are they realistic? Do they take into account variations in the environment and the fact that I’m a human?
If you answer yes to these questions, then there’s a useful message in your guilt that’s trying to serve you. This is healthy guilt. However, if you answered no to any of these questions, you might be in the territory of unhealthy guilt. There’s still a lesson to be learnt, but it’s a slightly different one. This is extremely important to understand – if you don’t receive the message in the right way, you’ll get stuck in unhealthy guilt.
4. Understand the message
This step allows you to turn the unpleasant feelings of guilt into a positive experience that benefits both you and others. Let me illustrate with an example.
A few nights ago, it was bedtime in our household, and everyone was tired. When adults get tired, they want to lie down, relax and welcome restful slumber. When little kids get tired, they draw upon the chaotic energy of the Universe, lose all impulse control and go crazy. On this particular night, my older son was pushing over his younger brother, refusing to let me brush his teeth, and generally unleashing the beast. I wasn’t handling it well. My patience tank was empty and I went into control mode. My tone became exasperated. My energy became harsh.
We finally got everyone into bed and I started to read my older son a story. But he was distracted, and wanted a different book that wasn’t in his bedroom. Then he wanted almond milk. He didn’t want to be quiet, and wanted to keep his brother up. My voice became sharper as I responded to each of these demands. I didn’t yell at him, but I couldn’t contain my resentment in that moment. Even though I didn’t say out loud: ‘You’re being bad for staying awake and not doing what I said,’ my body language and tone of voice was sending this message loud and clear.
Eventually, he fell asleep. Thank God. Sweet relief. I passed out next to him on his little bed, listening to the soothing sound of his breathing. But I awoke the next morning with a pang in my heart. Good morning, guilt. My mind began reflecting on moments from the previous night’s bedtime, seeing all the ways I was being critical and unloving with my son. I felt upset with myself, sad about being disconnected from him, and pained in my heart.
Is this healthy or unhealthy guilt? It all depends on what the message of the guilt is. First, I checked the rules (Step 2). The rules I broke were pretty clear: I should be patient with my sons; I should be non-reactive to their wild behaviours; and come from a place of connection and love when attempting to influence them. I shouldn’t convey the message that they’re bad for being awake or doing something else over which they have little control.
Yep, these are all values I aspire to – so you might assume that this is healthy guilt. However, how we treat ourselves also determines if the guilt is healthy or not. When I tuned in to the voice of guilt more closely, I heard this message: ‘This is totally unacceptable. How could you do this to your kids? You’re a bad father.’ Woah. That’s intense. So even though I broke a rule I agree with, this voice of guilt was overly harsh and wasn’t constructive in creating a new pattern with my kids – which suggests I had moved into the realm of unhealthy guilt.
5. Take new action
The truth is, you can’t beat yourself into being a better person. Attacking, judging, punishing and criticising yourself won’t lead to improvement. This is an antiquated and unexamined pattern that many of us fall into, despite it clearly not working. Instead, focus on what you can do now. If your mind keeps pulling you back to your supposed transgressions, how bad they were, and what a bad person you are, simply label that as unhealthy guilt and remind yourself that it’s not serving you. To help yourself snap out of the hypnotic trance of excessive guilt, you can stand up, take a few breaths and move your body around the room. Say out loud: ‘This kind of self-attack is not helpful. I can do so much better.’
The morning after I lost my patience with my son, instead of buying into that self-attack message and descending into a low-energy state of shame, I shifted my attention away from my thoughts and into the present moment. I felt my breath go in and out of my chest. I observed the physical sensations of the emotions I was experiencing. I felt the pain and ache of being angry at, and disconnected from, my son. I felt his pain. I felt my pain. I felt the burning in my heart. And I sent it love. I sent myself love and forgiveness. I sent my son love and forgiveness. What a sweet boy, doing the best he can. What a sweet dad, doing the best he can.
This is how you can manage unhealthy guilt, and let it transform you in positive ways. Get out of your head and into your heart. Feel whatever is there and keep meeting it with love and forgiveness, even if your mind tells you that it’s unforgivable. It’s not. Forgiveness is infinite and always accessible.
You might also think about the kind of rules you want to live by long-term. If the guilt you’re experiencing is due to an extreme, unrealistic or long-standing rule that you don’t want to live by, then proclaim that. Decide right here and now that you’re going to choose something different. You can do this with a proclamation, starting with this powerful phrase: ‘In my reality…’ For example:
In my reality, it’s OK to say no when I want to or need to.
In my reality, it’s OK for others to temporarily feel disappointed.
In my reality, it’s OK to speak up for myself and state my perspective.
This is an essential method to confirm the new rules that you want to live by, ones that stand in sharp contrast to the old, unrealistic rules of excessive guilt.
On the other hand, if you realised during the previous steps that this is healthy guilt, and that you’ve broken a rule that reflects a core value, there might be some practical action you can take. Do you need to apologise to someone? Do you need to change your behaviour, habits or ways of relating to certain people? Do you need to create a regular ritual or practice that will help you be more patient, kind, caring, present or relaxed? Take a moment to decide on the corrective behaviour and commit to doing it now. Let the discomfort, anxiety and pressure of the healthy guilt be a positive force to guide your behaviour from here on out. Do you notice how liberating that feels?
- Guilt is a feeling of anxiety and pressure that arises when we think we’ve broken an important rule. Guilt can serve a healthy function when it guides us to adhere to realistic rules that create positive relationships and behaviours.
- Guilt can turn unhealthy or excessive when it’s triggered in response to rules that are unrealistic or that we don’t really believe in. Unhealthy guilt leads to harsh self-criticism that’s not constructive.
- When you’re feeling guilty, acknowledge it out loud, discover what rule(s) you’ve broken, and determine if you actually believe in those rules. Determine if they’re overly rigid, simplistic or otherwise unreasonable.
- Interrupt harsh self-judgment and think about ways you might be exaggerating your transgression. Bring more compassion to yourself and the other people involved, and determine what corrective action you can take now to repair the situation (if needed). Then take that action swiftly.
Some people find that they experience unhealthy guilt very frequently. If that sounds like you, it might be helpful to examine in more detail the kind of rules you hold yourself to, and learn how to let them go. Specifically, many people who struggle with excessive guilt often have many unrealistic expectations of themselves related to perfectionistic rules and inner demands. These rules are not based on personal core values but are instead based on completely unrealistic standards for human behaviour, emotions and relationships. They are rigid, all-or-nothing, demanding and generally impossible to adhere to. These include rules such as:
I should never feel angry.
I should never feel anxious.
I should never make a mistake.
I should always know what to say.
I should never hurt anyone’s feelings.
I should never upset anybody.
I should always have total self-control.
I should be able to predict all outcomes.
I should foresee all problems and avoid them.
I should obtain _____ now. (Insert any result you are striving towards.)
These kinds of rules push you to constantly try to perform better, get more done, meet everyone’s needs, always get back to people, please everybody and never make a mistake. And underneath all of them is one central theme: There’s something wrong with you. The more you listen to these rules and follow them unquestioningly, the worse you feel about yourself. The more insufficient, inadequate, unlovable and unworthy you think you are, regardless of external achievement or how much others love you, the guiltier you feel.
The rules above are insane. When you identify one of them, the message isn’t that you should strive harder or become even more self-sacrificing. The response in these situations is to slow down and let go of the demand on yourself to be superhuman. Let go of these insane rules that are driving you so hard and creating so much suffering. This set of rules is not your friend. It might seem like it’s your inner coach, pushing you to ‘be your best’ or ‘be a good person’ but actually it’s the voice of self-hatred. It’s trying to push and coerce you into being what you imagine you should be, most likely in order to please others and finally feel worthy of recognition or love.
Something entirely new is possible. A way of relating to yourself with kindness, compassion, curiosity and warmth. A way of treating yourself as you would someone you love and want the best for. A way of life where you’re truly on your side, no matter what.
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