No one enjoys feeling guilty.
It might be hard to believe there could be anything helpful about it. There is. It tells you something about the kind of person you are.
There is even actually something helpful about shame, which seems like a relative of guilt. Stay tuned to hear about that, or better yet, subscribe so you don’t miss it!
This post is #7 in a series of 10: Ten Basic Emotions and their Messages.
Before we start, I want to set the stage.
The human emotional system is built as a messaging system.
Each emotion has a general message it wants to convey. Once that message is delivered (meaning you accept it that it is present and that its presence is OK) the emotion or the wave of that emotion can be processed.
Sometimes there are multiple waves of the emotion. Sometimes it takes a little time for the emotion to process through the body, sometimes it is relieved right away. It just depends.
It’s important to remember that there are nuances to the system. Each emotion also has a spectrum of how helpful it can be.
What is the basic message your guilt wants to bring to your awareness?
Guilt is a feeling that arises when you have traveled outside the bounds of your values and ethics.
That means guilt reveals the boundaries of your values and ethics. Remember how I was saying in the last post that your irritation feels like a problem because you are not OK with being short or rude to people? That lets you know that you are not a short and rude person at your core.
The work guilt wants to do is help you return to living in a way that remains within the boundaries of your ethics and values. Over riding it or trying to ignore it doesn’t exactly help.
If you can allow it, the unpleasant nature of guilt will teach you–on an experiential level– that you do not want to repeat a particular behavior that brought up unpleasant feelings.
Also, if it is unpleasant, it might push you to do repair work (apologize, communicate your needs directly vs indirectly, develop coping strategies or emotional awareness, ect) in whatever the situation might be.
Let’s look at an example:
In working with child clients, parents will sometimes come in and talk about something the child did. My client will usually slouch into the couch. Almost to the point they are almost laying down. This is usually accompanied by their silence and painful faces.
Most of the time, I can check it out with them. What it comes down to is they “feel bad” (i.e. guilty) about their behavior. Right. Because they aren’t bad kids. They are not mean spirited or tiny tyrants. They are human beings doing their best in the processing of growing up.
Is there something to learn? Of course. That is even why they feel bad about what they have done. Because they are not acting in alignment with who they truly are. The gap between their behaviors and who they are is usually the result of just not having the awareness or skills necessary.
I do not eliminate the guilt, I want help us use it to our advantage. The guilt becomes a motivating force.
Does this make sense?
As with all emotions, guilt has it’s challenge points. Let’s talk about that.
When guilt might be lying to you:
ONE: It is about an outdated program.
Sometimes there are values and ethics created in your early life that are actually no longer in alignment. The guilt showing up does not mean that you need to make your way back inside the bounds of your values and ethics; it’s a sign that you’re actually making positive change.
For example, let’s say that you learned to be responsible for other people’s emotions in your early family dynamics. It doesn’t mean your family is bad or unhealthy. This is very common. However, you are trying to work on managing your own emotions and allowing other people to manage theirs. This is a healthy psychological construct that Bowen called differentiation. As you practice allowing the space for other people to deal with their own emotions, guilt may arise. Is it true that you should go back to your old ways of functioning? No.
TWO: It’s not about you.
One other way that guilt can show up is when you take on something that has an external source, which you may have allowed to be placed on you. It could be a specific person telling you that you’re at fault for what’s happening in a particular situation or in their life. Or it could be a societal expectation that you are taking on.
These things are a little bit sneaky because we may experience them as if they’re our own. The truth is, however, that they’re only yours because you have accepted them as such.
Once you identify where they come from (not inside of you), you have the power of choice to determine whether or not what you have taken on is in alignment with who you are in current reality. If not, you can remove those thoughts by “talking back” to them, reminding yourself that whatever you have taken on is not yours.
Where Guilt Resides in the Body
As we know, it is important to be able to identify feelings as early as possible. One way to do that is through body sensations. Emotions usually register there first.
In terms of guilt, the sensation associated with it is usually located in the core or trunk of your body—perhaps your abdomen and chest. One way this feeling might be described is like a “stop,” like a clamping down. It might feel like a dull ache. It may feel a little bit like pressure.
Actions Steps to Process Guilt
ONE: Identify that guilt is present.
And acknowledge the circumstance that is giving rise to that emotion. You might notice the sensation in your body or you might find yourself telling someone “I feel bad about . . . ”
TWO: Consider whether the guilt is on the helpful or unhelpful side of the spectrum.
Helpful guilt shows you the boundaries of your current values and ethics and guides you to go back inside those boundaries by changing your behavior or repairing a mistake.
Unhelpful guilt is related to outdated boundaries, meaning the parameters of what you consider to be right behavior is becoming healthier and you feel guilt during that transition away from the old parameters. Unhelpful guilt may also be the result of blame you have taken on from an external source.
THREE: If it is helpful guilt requesting that you come back into the boundaries of your values and ethics, consider whether there is repair that needs to be done.
A “repair conversation” is one where you are accountable for your actions that involve another person. You communicate your apologies and make space for them to share their experience. If they would like to know why you made the choice you did, you can offer that information in a nondefensive way. If they do not need to know why you made that choice, you do not need to explain it to them.
FOUR: If it is unhelpful guilt, the work is counteracting those thoughts by answering back.
If the thought is “I feel bad, I don’t want to be selfish,” answer back with “I can only take care of others if I am taking care of myself” or “my choice to stop enabling my loved one is the most loving choice I can make right now.”
Literally, you might have to counteract these thoughts a hundred times a day until the new way is assimilated, but I promise you, it’s worth it.
Take one thing at a time and dismantle it. You will get farther that way.
What has guilt been able to tell you about who you are?