What is Guilt?
Guilt is an emotional state where we experience inner conflict at having done something that we believe we should not have done. Or opposingly, we feel conflict at having not done something we believe we should have done. Guilt is different from shame.
- “I did something bad”
- I feel motivated to repair, show regret, or apologize
- “I am bad”
- I want to hide and disappear
Guilt is a common secondary emotion, meaning we sometimes feel guilty for having an emotion. For example, we can feel guilty for feeling angry toward our parent. However, guilt can also be a primary emotion, meaning it’s our first response to a situation. For example, we can feel guilty because we think we’ve done something wrong.
When Do We Feel Guilty?
Guilt can be a helpful and productive emotion, relating to our capacity to experience empathy. Feeling bad after making a mistake can lead to change, such as an apology or a decision to make different choices in the future.
However, guilt can be unhelpful and unproductive if:
- It’s chronic or feels stuck inside us, unchanging
- It’s our automatic emotional response
- It feels all-encompassing
- It’s a feeling about a feeling
As Sarah Dergins says, “Feelings of guilt can happen when we haven’t done anything wrong at all, but we feel like we’ve violated some internal standard we’ve been taught.” Many of us have been taught to feel guilty for things that are normal human experiences, such as having emotions, being imperfect, or making mistakes. Many of us hold onto guilt that doesn’t belong to us and, when we do this, we are holding onto the belief that we may have had the power to change the outcome of a situation, when perhaps it was out of our control all along. As Umar Ibn Al-Khattab says, “No amount of guilt can change the past and no amount of worry can change the future.”
Developing self-awareness can be our first step toward cultivating moments of self-compassion. When we understand ourselves, we are able to separate thought from fact, meet ourselves with acceptance, and take steps toward releasing stuck feelings.
- Where do you feel the guilt inside your body?
- If the guilt could talk, what would it say to you?
- When you feel guilty, what are you most craving to hear? What do you most need?
- Is the guilt about having done something bad, or believing you are bad? (note that feeling we are bad is shame, not guilt)
- How else do you feel when you experience guilt? E.g. Do you feel shame, fear, etc.?
- How do you behave when you experience guilt? Or what do you want to do?
- Consider the part of you that feels guilty. What is that part of you trying to protect you from? What is this part afraid would happen if it didn’t make you feel guilty?
- Even if you don’t like this guilt, can you see how it’s trying to help you in some way? That maybe it’s reminding you of something that’s important to you?
- Can you send some compassion toward yourself with this new knowledge?
- Ultimately, is this part of you effective in the job that it’s doing?
Changing Feelings of Guilt
First, we want to distinguish if our guilt is:
- A secondary emotion (a feeling about having a feeling) – e.g. if we feel guilty for being angry at our parent
- A primary adaptive emotion (a fresh, new response that gives us useful information and a direct benefit) – e.g. we feel guilty for forgetting someone’s birthday
- A primary maladaptive emotion (an old, stuck emotions that are all-encompassing and do not give us useful information or a direct benefit) – e.g. chronic guilt or when we feel guilty for something we had no control over
This information can support us in understanding ourselves better and knowing what we may need. We likely will need the support of a psychotherapist to take these steps.
- If it’s a secondary emotion, we can work toward giving ourselves permission to connect with what really underneath
- If it’s a primary adaptive emotion, we can work toward meeting the need that we have (e.g. to repair, apologize, or show regret)
- If it’s a primary maladaptive emotion, we can work with a therapist to uncover new emotions that relate to our first difficult experiences of guilt (which likely occurred in childhood), such as self-compassion or assertive anger
It can be hard to avoid inviting our guilt to transform into the costume of shame. As humans, we are flawed and imperfect, so mistakes are inevitable. Faltering is part of being human and we have a tendency to be too hard on ourselves while giving permission to others to be imperfect. We can work toward finding a way to live by our values with compassion for others as well as ourselves. Working with a psychotherapist can support us to develop compassion for our adult selves as well as our younger selves that may have received messages that impact our relationship with guilt today.
“Self Observation without Judgement” – a poem by Danna Faulds
Release the harsh and pointed inner
voice. It’s just a throwback to the past,
and holds no truth about this moment.
Let go of self-judgment, the old,
learned ways of beating yourself up
for each imagined inadequacy.
Allow the dialogue within the mind
to grow friendlier, and quiet. Shift
out of inner criticism and life
suddenly looks very different.
I can say this only because I make
the choice a hundred times a day
to release the voice that refuses to
acknowledge the real me.
What’s needed here isn’t more
prodding toward perfection, but
intimacy–seeing clearly, and
embracing what I see.
Love, not judgment, sows the
seeds of tranquility and change.