Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Healthy and Unhealthy Guilt

Guilt is one of the most difficult emotions for many clients (and therapists) to cope with. It is the emotion we experience when we fail to meet our internal standards or self-expectation. Even though it may feel like it comes from outside of us, it really comes from within – from the part of us that wishes to be perfect, or much closer to perfect than we can ever actually be. It arises from our highest aspirations, and tells us when we’ve broken our personal set of moral guidelines. Guilt is the mechanism that helps us recognize right and wrong, treat others the way we want to be treated, and live peacefully with each other. When we feel guilty about something, we try not to repeat it because guilt is uncomfortable.

We learn guilt from people around us as we are growing up: from the moral behavior that adults model for us, from the spoken rules and moral guidelines they tell us, and from how they react to our behavior. Rewards and approval communicate that our behavior was “good” while punishment and disapproval communicate that our behavior was “bad.” Ideally, the messages we get about our behavior are appropriate, realistic, and healthy. However, sometimes they are not. Sometimes we are taught moral standards that are unrealistic and unreachable. Sometimes we are taught to feel guilty about healthy behavior (setting limits or boundaries, for example), or for having certain emotions (even though emotions are healthy). Somewhere along the line we may have learned that we are responsible for the well-being of others – perhaps we had to take care of siblings, or had a relative with disability, or our parents had problems and we had to take care of them. We may have started assuming things are our fault because our family members could not take responsibility for their actions, and blamed us instead. These lessons led to unhealthy guilt.

While it is appropriate and healthy to take responsibility for genuine mistakes and failures, it is not appropriate or healthy to feel guilty when we have done nothing wrong. If someone feels like they are to blame for everything that goes wrong in their life, they are probably taking responsibility for things that they actually have no control over. Healthy guilt motivates people to assess their behavior according to reasonable moral standards. Unhealthy guilt makes them feel guilty whenever they take care of their own needs, and say no to someone else’s. Signs someone may have excessive guilt are saying they are sorry when it’s unnecessary, or apologizing excessively beyond what is necessary; assuming they are wrong and other people are right; and constantly berating themselves for imagined wrongdoing.

When guilt is healthy, coping with it effectively (rather than becoming trapped in pain and regret) requires us to forgive ourselves by: (1) understanding the circumstances and our response; (2) taking responsibility for our own behavior (but not aspects of the situation beyond our control); (3) making ammends to repair whatever damage was done; (4) problem-solving so that we respond differently in the future; and (5) accept what's done is done, and make the decision to let it go.

When guilt is unhealthy, coping with it effectively requires us to (1) understand the circumstances and what internal expectations/ideals are fueling our guilt; (2) evaluate these internal expectations/ideals and recognize when they are unfair, unrealistic, not something we consciously believe in, and/or something we would object to if applied to anyone else; (3) consciously "edit" the relevant expectations/ideals; (4) when the thing that is making us feel guilty is not objectively wrong, engage in the behavior repeatedly until it stops producing the same emotional reaction (approach rather than avoid). The last step can be really hard and may require some outside help - to verify whether the guilt is unjustified, and provide support to approach and push through the guilty feeling rather than avoid.

How do you help clients, or yourself, deal with guilt?

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