Rosa grew up going to church and following the rules. She always thought she’d “save herself for marriage,” but in college her conceptualization of her own sexuality evolved, and she ended up having numerous partners and experiences that were rich and satisfying (and a few that weren’t). Some four years later, she’s recently gotten married to a wonderful man after a year of courtship and felt true love. Unexpectedly, she’s feeling guilt about the decision she made in high school and wondering about whether in fact she should’ve stuck with the lessons she learned as a young person. In fact, she’s feeling so guilty that she’s finding it difficult to stay present during sex with her husband.
Vance’s wife divorced him last month stating that she couldn’t handle “being married to a child.” Now, their three-year-old son, Jack, is going back and forth each week between their two homes. Jack was a very happy-go-lucky baby, but with all the transition and strife, he isn’t doing well. Jack has gotten several ear infections and is fussy most of the time, and there is a quality to his fussiness that Vance feels certain is related to the distress of being moved around so much and never having mom and dad together. Vance blames himself for being so immature and not having his act together. He believes that if he had been a better husband, his wife wouldn’t have left him and then their son wouldn’t be going through so much stress.
Josh and his dad Jim had always been close, they even ran a business together and spent the majority of each day together. Jim had been struggling with health issues for several years, but finally seemed to be stabilizing and doing better. One night Josh and Jim had a huge disagreement over a business decision and Josh left the office, slamming the door in his father’s face. That night after cooling off Josh tried calling his dad to apologize, but instead his step-mother answered the phone sobbing uncontrollably. Jim had experienced a heart attack that night and died on his way to the hospital. In addition to the immense grief Josh felt over losing his father he was laden with guilt about how his final conversation with his dad had been a huge fight.
Where Does Guilt come from?
Guilt comes from the thought or belief that you are in the wrong for something you’ve done and wishing that your actions hadn’t happened or at least not led to the circumstances that they did. Sometimes, we experience guilt because we have directly or intentionally harmed someone. For example, we may have said something to a friend or loved one that we know will hurt their feelings. In other situations, we may bear no real responsibility for a negative outcome in a given relationship or situation, but for some reason, we still feel responsible. This can be all the more puzzling!
Is Guilt Bad?
Guilt can be a normal and healthy emotion to have in some situations, and can even motivate us to do better in the future. Certainly, many people have gone through negative circumstances about which they feel guilty and come out the other end endeavoring to do better. However, in some circumstances, guilt can serve no real purpose other than helping us to feel emotionally crippled.
Experiencing guilt can be healthy if you have knowingly harmed someone in some way. This is a sign that you have a strong conscience and want to do right in the world. Guilt in this experience will hopefully motivate you to take corrective action such as apologizing.
Excessive guilt or guilt for something you didn’t have control over can be unhealthy and cause more harm than good. And, when left unaddressed can cause more issues in the long run. This type of guilt often leads to what is called “magical thinking” or the belief that you could have controlled a situation that you ultimately have no control over. An example of this would be a child who believes that he is the reason his parents are getting a divorce and thinks that if he only made better grades his parents would stay together.
Responding to Guilt
Regardless of the type of guilt you have (real or perceived) it is most important how you handle it. Do you let the guilt fester? Do you act on it appropriately if needed? Do you believe in it even when it is clearly magical thinking?
If you answer yes to any of the following you may be struggling with guilt in a non-constructive way:
- Do you feel responsible for results that ultimately were outside of your control (e.g. the death of someone by suicide, someone’s death that you did not directly cause, parent’s divorce, etc.)
- Do you experience overwhelming thoughts or feelings because of the guilt (e.g. thinking about what you could have done differently and it gets in the way of daily tasks)
- Does your guilt impact other people? (e.g. do family or friends experience the negative side effects of your overwhelming guilt?)
- Do you refrain from taking action for feeling so guilty?
- Do you experience feelings of worthlessness because of your guilt?
But really, Guilt Counseling?
Like many other distressing emotional experiences, it isn’t uncommon for folks to feel dubious as tro whether it really necessitates the intervention of counseling and psychotherapy, especially given that guilt is in fact an emotional experience that is a part of life at some point. Nonetheless, if you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, you may need to seek professional support to help you manage your guilt effectively. It may be helpful for you to know that guilt, if not exclusively connected to a specific occurrence or happening (i.e., if your guilt is more global and general), is often a symptom of other mental health disorders. In particular, disproportionate guilt or underlying feelings of guilt can be a symptom of clinical depression.
But even if your guilt is more specific and seemingly or actually related to a particular incident, relationship, or experience, it may be helpful for you to know that many persons still find it isn’t able to be resolved through otherwise good things like family love, friend support, or helpful conversations with coaches or pastors or other helpful and wise people. Guilt is often complex, and what it seems obviously connected to may in fact only be a part of a larger whole, or, in even more complex instances, may not be related much at all. The point is that if guilt doesn’t resolve on its own and ends up causing you problems beyond the fact that its no fun to feel, it would by definition seem to be something that you’ll require help to navigate successfully. (And if you feel guilty about asking for help, you’ve got a double whammy!)
Help for now.
Here are some tips for how to better mange your guilt (vs. letting it manage you):
- Be honest with yourself – Make the distinction of whether or not you truly did have control over the negative consequence you feel guilty about. And, if you are responsible what needs to be done to make it right.
- Take action – Rather than letting your guilt fester, focus on what you can DO. Do you need to forgive yourself, ask for forgiveness from someone else, or something else? Make it happen and see if that helps you feel less overwhelmed.
- Notice when you’re punishing yourself – You may feel like the only way to “make things right” is to continue experiencing intense guilt, but if it is truly crippling you emotionally or even physically, what good is that doing in the world? Most people suffering in this way are doing so alone, and there is no cosmic re-ordering of the world that happens simply because you’re committed to feeling badly.
- Notice if it becomes shame – Guilt is the feeling that we’ve done something wrong. Shame is the belief that you are wrong (or “bad”) more implicitly or inherently. It is important to make the distinction between doing something wrong and being wrong.
- Seek professional guidance – Talking to a professional mental health counselor may be needed in order to help you effectively manage your guilt. At Juxta, California in San Diego we have therapists that can help you learn to deal with your guilt in a constructive way.
Need some guidance with all of these? We can help!
At Juxta, California counseling, we are aren’t just expert counselors – we’re people too, which means you can expect us to be genuinely interested in you, your story, and your life. We want to get to know the real you. In our work together, honesty with yourself and us comes to characterize the entire healing endeavor. Thus, our relationship itself — that is the work.
There’s nothing else you need to do to prepare. There’s no reason to wait any longer.
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