By Eric Perry, PhD-c
“Every moment spent in unhappiness is a moment of happiness lost.” ~Leo Buscaglia
1. Recognize where the guilt is coming from
Is there something you did or are still doing to contribute to your feelings of guilt? If so, what steps are you taking to not repeat this behavior? Remember, guilt serves an important purpose in helping recognize when a behavior is bad for us. It is our moral and ethical compass. If we choose to ignore it, we inevitably will be haunted by guilty feelings. If the feelings of guilt are coming from something that you can no longer change, acceptance and adopting the intention to not repeat the guilt provoking behavior is the best approach.
Is there someone in your life who is making you feel guilty? It is important to recognize that certain people find comfort, stability, safety and even pleasure in making others feel guilty. It is not necessarily because they are bad people. Controlling others by using guilt often stems from feelings of anxiety or a fear of abandonment (especially from parent to child). A narcissistic parent will make their child feel guilty in order to feel secure that the child will never leave.
Speaking of narcissists, they tend to view people as objects, similarly to how you might view a piece of furniture. If I can set my water bottle on you like I would a table, then I am happy with you. If I can’t, I might go as far as to disown you. When a person guilts you, they are asking you to tend to their emotional needs. If you are entangled in a relationship with a guilting narcissist and are unable to get away, your best bet is to recognize that it is not your responsibility to be their emotional caretaker. Managing your reactivity, while accepting that others “are the way they are” may give you relief in the midst of your struggle.
2. Determine whether your guilt is “healthy” or “unhealthy”
If your guilt is “healthy,” it will tell you not to repeat a particular behavior, because that behavior is harmful in some way. Healthy guilt will also tell you to take responsibility for something you have done.
If your guilt is “unhealthy,” it will tell you to do something because you have to do it, otherwise you are bad. For example, I have to donate because if I don’t, I am a bad person. Even though this may achieve the goal of helping someone, the motivation is unhealthy and unsustainable. In the words of Phoebe, “The wrong thing done for the right reason is still the wrong thing.” Unhealthy guilt will also tell you that you have done something wrong, even when you haven’t.
3. Accept and don’t dwell
If you did something wrong, it is important to accept that you cannot change the past. If we are not careful, we can get caught up thinking about all of the things we could have done differently. If you stray and entertain these thoughts, you will inevitably spiral. Remember, no matter how good your flashlight is should you venture into a cave, it is still a cave. Caves are dark and often lead to no where. Dwelling on your guilt or the misstep you made will only create more guilt. Accept and acknowledge the misstep. Then, move on.
4. If necessary, make the change quickly
If you are participating in a behavior that is guilt provoking, it is important to make a change quickly. Behaviors rapidly become habits. After a while, you may forget what it feels like not to feel guilty. It is possible for a single guilty feeling to evolve into a person’s entire state of being, without them ever noticing. This is especially common with people who struggle with porn addiction.
5. Remember, guilt is our moral and ethical compass. We need it.
Keep in mind, guilt serves a necessary purpose for us emotionally. Without it, we would feel no remorse for deceiving or hurting others. The goal is not to be guilt free. The intention is to understand ourselves, our triggers and how we can purposefully influence our behavior to be less reactive and more empowered people.
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