[7 Minute Read]
Guilt is a misunderstood, complicated emotion that can be deeply rooted in our past.
For most of my life, I battled irrational, codependent guilt that ate away at my self-worth and ability to live authentically. I'm deeply familiar with the role guilt can play in our lives when it's gone way past the boundaries of what is healthy.
In this article, we'll discuss healthy vs unhealthy guilt, its relationship to our past experiences, and 5 tips to help you overcome it.
First, let's get right into 5 tips for coping with irrational guilt
1. Write it down: In a journal, write down a time when your guilt persisted far longer than it should have, a time when you felt like something was deeply “wrong” with you and you couldn't shake the feeling. Did you actually do anything “wrong”, or is it possible this assessment was based on something else? Was someone projecting something onto you? What could have triggered your guilt? Growing up, did you internalize any messages or beliefs from others around you? Like that you are responsible for making everyone happy or comfortable, for example, or that you're selfish if you don't ask permission for certain things. (Learn more about cognitive flexibility here and unlearning the "rules" you've picked up throughout life)
2. Identify your intentions: If you're still unsure if what you did actually warranted your guilt, ask yourself what your intentions or state of mind were at the time of your actions: did you intend to harm or mistreat anyone? Were you lacking certain information at the time? For example, maybe you gave someone a plant for their birthday, and later their friend told you that this person hates plants. You might feel guilty or like a "bad" gifter, but you didn't have this knowledge at the time. There's nothing to be guilty about here! Turn this guilt into healthy guilt by acknowledging the new information you received and having compassion for yourself.
3. Self-compassion: To begin to heal from an unhealthy sense of guilt, try the following: hold yourself in a tight hug, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Then repeat the following words: “I did enough. I am enough. I release responsibility for what is not mine.” Breathe deeply and repeat this as often as needed. If you want to say something else, go ahead! If tears come, let them fall. Crying is a way to process our feelings. Have compassion for yourself, as you're likely doing some much-needed healing.
4. Consider a different feeling: Consider if another feeling may be more appropriate for your feeling of guilt. For example, regret or disappointment may be a more appropriate feeling for your situation. You can regret that things didn't go well, or be disappointed that someone got upset. Accept the feeling and know that you can always do better next time.
5. Releasing it from the body: Overwhelming emotions and past experiences can be "stored" in the body. Guilt can make your stomach hurt, cause your muscles to tense up, or your throat to feel tight. When you feel overwhelmed by guilt, try this: turn on a song that mirrors what you are feeling, and allow yourself to move. You can dance, sway, or go for a walk. Stay with the feeling while moving your body. Breathe deeply. This may help to "release" the feeling.
Healthy vs Unhealthy Guilt
Healthy guilt can encourage us to take responsibility for something we did, take action, and work to better ourselves. It's usually based on us violating our own personal values, needs, or morals. Once we have taken steps to hold ourselves accountable, we release the guilt and can move on relatively peacefully.
Unhealthy guilt persists. It is fueled by "shoulds" and a fear of consequences, usually defined by values that others have communicated to us should be our own (verbally or otherwise).
We may feel constant, irrational guilt over things that are, in fact, healthy...Such as our life goals, saying no, sexual desires, religious beliefs, and standing up for ourselves. Our guilt may be a result of denying our own needs and feelings, and it rarely shows up alone - it may be accompanied by or lead to rage, depression, irritability, and anxiety.
Unhealthy guilt begins to take the form of "what's wrong with me?".
In other words, it's shame.
This can feel overwhelming and crippling and keep us from functioning in our daily lives. We may be afraid that being ourselves will cause something bad to happen.
So where does this deeply-embedded sense of guilt come from?
What's the ROOT of your guilt?
Did your parents guilt trip you a lot growing up? Insisting that your beliefs align with theirs when it comes to relationships, religion, or other important matters? Maybe you were constantly watching your caretakers or a past spouse for signs of mood changes, anger, blame, or criticisms.
Perhaps you internalized messages from the media about what you "should" look, feel, think, or act like.
Or maybe your guilt is more subtle, and a result of the absence of someone to mirror your feelings and hold space for them while you were growing up, causing you to never develop responses that felt true to yourself.
No matter where it comes from, unhealthy guilt comes from a sense of over-responsibility to rules that are not our own.
(If the root of your guilt has anything to do with childhood emotional neglect, you may like to read Running on Empty by psychologist Jonice Webb. This is not a sponsored link, just a book that helped me in my own healing journey that I highly recommend. Also Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD may give you more insight into the relationship with your caretakers and it may manifest in guilt you feel in the present day).
Guilt has a particularly insidious grip on those who struggle with codependency. I struggled for many years with it, long before I ever even knew the word or understood what it meant. There were very few people to hold space for my feelings growing up and my inner critic became a voice of self-doubt, invalidation, and guilt for my feelings, thoughts, and needs.
Codependency is a pattern of relating in relationships that results in an unhealthy, co-created dynamic. It's often created unconsciously if both parties are unaware of what it is or lack self-awareness. The codependent habitually dismisses and invalidates their own needs or feelings and is overly-attuned to the needs of their partner. The other party, meanwhile, is usually in some way dependent upon the codependent's tendency to do this. They may get an emotional reward from it, feel validated, or it may enable their own destructive behavior.
Codependents have a poor sense of Self, an inability to independently regulate emotions, and probably grew up in a dysfunctional dynamic that taught them to behave this way to get needs met. They may not even know that they do it until it has completely worn them down emotionally and physically and they've reached a "breaking point". Their guilt is centered around a deep sense of "wrongness" for their own feelings and needs.
What if the guilt is over your own past behavior, but you still can't move past it?
Releasing such guilt is a process and it may take time, but allowing yourself to feel it is the way forward here.
Have compassion for yourself. What you did before was likely the best way you knew how to handle the situation at the time.
You must stop continuously punishing yourself for your actions, whether that be through shaming or criticizing yourself or not allowing yourself to enjoy aspects of your life because of your past.
Acknowledge that the guilt is there. Label the different emotions you feel. You feel guilt (obviously) but maybe also regret, shame, sadness, fury, disappointment, longing.
The way forward is acknowledging all of how you feel, and showing yourself love and kindness. Help the guilt release itself by allowing yourself to feel it. Everytime you feel guilty, place a hand over your heart and repeat something like "I did then what I knew how to do. I am so sorry, and I forgive myself.". You may want to cry, and that's ok.
From Past to Present: Unlearning the "Shoulds"
Adult You may still be holding yourself to a standard that you never personally had a say in defining. Your deep sense of guilt may be an unconscious reaction that gets triggered because, at some point, you learned that others' emotions, thoughts, or needs were somehow more important or worthy than your own.
You may have been called selfish, lazy, needy, immoral, etc. You may have been left to your own devices when it came to soothing big feelings or finding emotional support. Displaying your needs may have been met with shame, blame, abandonment, rejection, invalidation, or worse.
Separating healthy guilt from unhealthy, irrational guilt begins with connecting with your inner child and giving yourself compassion and having unconditional acceptance for all those feelings and needs you may have been denied. Accept them as valid. Own and express them, now.
Embrace the reality of your present, rather than your past - which is that you are no longer responsible for this guilt and shame. You never were.
The things that were outside of your control and that distorted your ability to connect with your Self are long gone. It's your mission now to reclaim your life.
Guilt is not a useless emotion. Learn what it has to teach you about your old ways of coping. Adopt healthier coping strategies. Live your life in alignment with your OWN values, needs, and thoughts. You deserve it.