Guilt Defined: Guilt is usually described as “the sense of right or wrong”. As an emotion, it suggests conscience – that little angel sitting on your shoulder – and remorse. On the one hand, we feel guilty when we do something we think we shouldn’t have done; on the other hand, we feel guilty when we don’t do something we think we should have done.
A Common Theme: Feeling guilty is a theme we see often in our work as psychotherapists. People feel guilty when they have affairs, when they lie or keep secrets from others, or when they look the other way instead of speaking up about something they think is not right. While guilt can often be a useful guide to helping us decide how to act, there is another side of guilt that can create problems for people.
The Darker Side of Guilt: Some types of guilt can paralyze us emotionally. This is the kind of guilt that we have trouble resolving. It won’t go away, no matter how far into the backs of our minds we try to push it. It can paralyze us or keep us from doing, or not doing, something, we want to do. When we experience this kind of guilt, it helps to look at what is really going on and figure out how we can resolve it, or make peace with it.
Guilt and Social Control: A tricky kind of guilt is the guilt that is used as a form of social control. Many religions and cultures rely on people’s guilt as a way to control their behavior. Take bans on premarital sex or any kind of sex other than heterosexual sex, for example. People experiencing uncertainty about their sexual orientation are bound to feel guilty and even more confused if they are dealing with a religion or culture that expressly forbids acting on their feelings. They may be torn between what feels right to them and what they have been taught.
Say No to Deaf Guilt: Some Deaf people have told us they feel guilty asking their hospital to provide round-the-clock interpreting coverage during crisis situations. Typically, hospitals decline overnight coverage because patients are expected to be sleeping most of the time. This is unacceptable. How are Deaf patients given equal access if they need to communicate with hospital staff in the middle of the night? Some Deaf people feel guilty about their request for interpreters, believing that they should feel grateful for whatever limited coverage the hospital may have already agreed to provide.
We have heard plenty of stories of Deaf people again and again being asked not to attend support groups – such as AA meetings or free hospital-funded cancer survivor groups – on a regular basis because of the cost of providing interpreters. Imagine the guilt dumped on the Deaf person who is requested politely, “Do you mind not coming to this group every week, but only once in a while, because we don’t earn any money for the group and it costs our agency so much money to pay for your interpreters?”. Right there, the Deaf person’s rights are violated, the burden of “taking care” of the agency’s financial issues is placed in the Deaf person’s hands, and any positive feelings about participating in the group are tainted, thus likely leading to the Deaf person not getting whatever support or help is needed (check out an earlier ASC post on a university’s attempt to play the guilt card related to an interpreting request).
Tips for Avoiding Going on a Guilt Trip:
1. Think about the situation that is making you feel guilty. Decide if you acted appropriately or not. If another party is involved, decide if there was an unfair attempt to burden you with guilt.
2. If you think your behavior was appropriate, let go of your guilt. Make plans for taking action to get what you need or deserve. If no further action is needed, turn your attention to something else such as reading a magazine article or taking a walk.
3. If you think your behavior was inappropriate, see if you can come up with an idea to correct what happened, such as offering an apology or doing something differently. Do this and then tell yourself you have done all you can do to make things better.
4. Ask yourself if there is anything you have learned from the situation that might be helpful in the future.
Remember that we cannot change anything that has already happened in the past, no matter how guilty we may feel about it, especially if we decide we have acted wrongly. Heading off on a long guilt trip will not change the past, neither will it make us better people. The best thing we can do is learn from our mistakes. We can also learn how to recognize when we are unfairly burdened with guilt.