I’ve been meaning to talk about guilt for some time now.
Guilt is a feeling that is familiar to most of us – some more than others of course. And I find that it’s something that comes up in therapy a lot. We in Ireland just love our guilt – we are literally born with the stuff if we are Catholic, which most of us are.
But is guilt ‘good’?
Yes and no, I guess. Yes, guilt can be a way of keeping ourselves in check, a moral compass if you will. It alerts us to the possibility that our behaviour is poor, unkind, even cruel or abusive.
But what if we feel guilt even when we’ve done nothing technically wrong?
What if we are so accustomed to feeling guilty that we don’t even check to see if it’s the appropriate feeling?
The list of guilt trips we can take ourselves on is almost endless. And not a single one of these trips could be described as fun…
- Do you feel guilty saying “no”?
- Do you feel guilty when you eat something you enjoy? ( How can eating be ‘wrong??!’)
- Do you feel guilty that your partner or a carer minds your kids while you work?
- Do you feel guilty if you choose what to buy for dinner instead of going with your partner’s choice? (Even if it’s often or even usually your partner’s choice?)
- Do you feel guilty saying what you want for your birthday?
- Do you feel guilty if you’re feeling sad on a night out with your friends?
- Do you feel guilty asking for even the smallest of favours?
- Do you feel guilty if you are sexually attracted to someone other than your partner?
- Do you feel guilty at the thought of asking your partner for something sexually pleasurable?
This kind of advertising triggers major feelings of irritation for me: because the purpose is to trigger guilt. What does it trigger for you?
Guilt is bad for us and should come with a health warning.
Sometimes guilt can be weirdly useful. I know that sounds off, but have you ever felt relief saying ‘Oh I couldn’t complain to the lovely staff about that – sure I’d feel so GUILTY!’? Telling ourselves we’d feel guilty allows us to let ourselves off the hook and to dodge responsibility – it keeps us in victim mode and sometimes that’s oddly comfortable.
It’s a rather dubious ‘benefit’ to be fair.
No-one will ever judge you as harshly as you judge yourself
At its most insidious, guilt it can be incredibly damaging and exhausting. We unwittingly keep ourselves stuck by engaging the services of our old friend guilt. It means we do things we don’t fully want to do, or that aren’t good for us. Or we may not do things for fear of imagined rejection or judgement. We might go to places we don’t fully want to go, because we want to avoid the guilt feeling more than we want to avoid the ‘thing’ or ‘place’ in question. We cheat ourselves out of reaching our potential in this way. We choose unhappiness fearing that the alternative choice is guilt – a bigger unhappiness.
In this way we deprive ourselves of opportunities for joy, fulfilment.
How can we break this habit?
Next time you catch the guilt sneaking in, challenge yourself with this question:
“Have I actually just done something that’s actually wrong?”
If you haven’t, then your guilt is wholly undeserved, unnecessary and pointless. There is no learning to be gained from it. Just pain.
Guilt has become woven into our discourse – “I’ve got the guilts”, “I couldn’t say that I’d feel awful!” “A mother’s guilt knows no end!” – there are more I’m sure, I think my brain is resisting bringing them to mind!
I think we would do well to collectively drop this tradition of guilt. Instead, we could start a new tradition of responsibility and self-care ~
Imagine the freedom?!!