This is typically the time of year we begin to take stock of all that has transpired in the past months and our hopes for the coming year. It’s also that time of year when feelings of “guilt” tend to rise to the surface: Guilt we’ve not given enough, been kind enough, done enough, been enough, said enough, worked hard enough, lived up to our own goals or missed meeting others’ expectations . . . . You get the idea – humans are very creative when conjuring up guilty feelings.
Almost everyone I saw in private practice as a psychotherapist, at one time or another, expressed guilt:
Some harbored guilty feelings they were responsible for a parent’s short-comings, abusive behavior or unhappiness; Many felt guilty they had left an abusive home when they were of age and left a younger sibling behind without protection; Clients felt guilty they couldn’t provide for their family in the way they imagined they should. I could give millions . . . of other examples.
Guilt is my least favorite emotion because much of the time it is an intellectualization – an attempt to make sense of the irrational – while the feelings of sadness, hurt or fear lurk beneath our surfaces .
Don’t get me wrong. Guilt is needed and appropriate if you’ve done something immoral, illegal or unethical as it helps correct the course of future choices and actions.
- Immoral – Guilt maintains healthy relationships
- Illegal -Guilt helps keep society functioning at it’s optimum
- Unethical – Guilt keeps business, commerce on the right path
If I said this once while I was in practice, I said it a trillion times:
“DO feel guilty if you’ve betrayed or hurt another person, broken the law, or been unprofessional. STOP thinking you’re guilty if your behavior doesn’t meet the the immoral, illegal or unethical litmus test and choose another emotion”
Why do we choose guilt when our actions aren’t immoral, illegal or unethical? We want to think we have/had control – that we could have chosen to do something differently and therefore we will be in control and have choice in the future. With feelings of sadness, fear or hurt we are simply vulnerable and feel out of control – out of control of ourselves and over circumstances.
If you think you are “guilty” and have not broken an immoral, illegal or unethical code pick another feeling! – any other feeling: mad, sad, disgusted, fearful, hurt . . . You won’t die if you are vulnerable. Our fantasy of always being in control is mainly that . . . fantasy.