Who hasn’t once in their life felt guilty – to a parent, partner, friend, colleague, neighbour or even to themselves? In general, there is nothing wrong with it unless the experience is overwhelming, making it hard to enjoy life, achieve your goals and love yourself. What distinguishes guilt from shame? And what should be remembered when faced with this emotion? A psychologist explains.
To begin with, I suggest we distinguish between “guilt” and “shame”. To oversimplify, shame is an emotion that we feel because we think we have behaved wrongly towards another person and that person is aware of it. Shame requires three conditions: us, the situation and the other person to whom we are ashamed (of ourselves or someone else). Guilt is, in fact, the shame of being ashamed of oneself. For guilt, the situation itself and you and I are enough. When we are guilty, we give ourselves a “red card” and give ourselves a penalty.
In order to deal with the guilt, you need to change your outlook on the situation a little. Let’s try to do this together.
1. IS IT POSSIBLE TO GO BACK IN TIME?
Guilt is always directed at the past: we regret mistakes we have made, actions we have taken or actions we have not taken. But no one has yet been able to go back in time to change anything. What, then, is the point of spinning the same “record” in our heads, evoking appropriate emotions? Would it do anything to change the situation? If not, we need to treat our past the same way we treat everything we can’t influence: the weather, inflation, unemployment and more. We simply accept these circumstances.
2. DO YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE WRONG?
For some reason we think that no one makes mistakes but us. And sometimes we think that other people can make mistakes, but that we ourselves never should. This approach in psychology is called “oughtness”: we think for some reason that we should act this way and not that way. And when in some situations we are forced to deviate from our usual type of behaviour, then we begin to feel a sense of guilt.
Maybe it is time to accept the fact that it is human nature to make mistakes, and you and I are no exception. It is also worth realising that everything in life cannot go according to a certain plan. Neither we, nor anyone else, can behave according to some “script of obligation”. Learning to forgive ourselves is a skill that can be developed.
3. AND WHO ARE THE JUDGES?
Sometimes we get so caught up in guilt that we don’t subject our ‘guilt’ to rational and critical evaluation. Well, who told us, or better yet, proved, that it was our fault in this or that situation? We love to nurture our ego and think that everything in the world happens only because of our participation. This phenomenon has a name: personalisation. But it is nothing more than a trap of thinking. First of all, it is worth finding irrefutable evidence that we are to blame, that what happened is the result of our actions or inactions, rather than simply attributing everything that happens in life to ourselves.
4. IS IT GUILT OR PITY?
Sometimes we hide self-pity behind feelings of guilt. It is as if we are hiding behind our own (often far-fetched) mistake in order to justify in the eyes of others (and our own) why we are not striving for something, not making plans, not moving forward. The brain of such a person in such situations as if saying: “Well, how can I do anything after such a mistake? I already have a strong feeling of guilt. Let’s not do anything else, so as not to make a mess”.
A classic of the genre in this regard is guilt after a divorce, when the marriage was objectively doomed to fail. But one gets stuck in the past, blaming oneself. And this guilt does not allow building a new relationship, fulfilling a protective function. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and stop hiding behind your failures.
5. WHAT’S FURTHER?
I have already said that there is no point in thinking about the events of the past unless we are going to draw the appropriate conclusions so that we don’t make the same mistakes again. So it is much better to understand what went wrong, work on the mistakes and move on. As long as the guilt is like shackles on our legs, it will hold us back in our future plans for life. Maybe it’s time to throw off those shackles.
And don’t forget the words of Erich Maria Remarque in A Time to Live and A Time to Die: “It is not usually those who are guilty who torment the conscience”.