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: