Spotlight on Emotions: Guilt

Many of us may have been modelled that it is best to push emotions down and ignore them. Even more of us weren’t shown ways to manage emotions. This isn’t anyone’s fault, our parents were probably only doing what they had been shown or told. It is up to you if you would like to do things differently.

With this in mind, every two to three weeks I’m going to write a blog on a specific emotion and this time I have chosen guilt because it can be one of those sneaky emotions that camps out in us without us even realising!

I’m going to work on the basis that there are three main types of guilt:

  • Constructive Guilt
  • Toxic Guilt
  • Existential Guilt

Constructive Guilt

Constructive guilt is when we feel reasonably guilty for something we have done. For instance, we may feel guilty if we scratch our neighbours car through carelessness or simply forget a friend’s birthday. It doesn’t feel very nice but, particularly if we act on the guilt and apologise or make up for it in some way, it usually passes soon enough.

As with any of these emotions it can be useful to hone in to the sensations of how it feels and describe them. This way, if we feel the same in the future but can’t pinpoint it it might help us to allocate the sensations we have when it comes to guilt. We can then ask ourselves if we feel guilty and if we do work out what for and if it is an appropriate emotion (and if so, what we can do about it).

Toxic Guilt

When I said at the beginning of this piece that some of us can carry guilt around with us and not even realise it, this type of guilt is usually toxic guilt. There are two kinds of toxic guilt:

  • When, through a difficult upbringing or a traumatic time in our life we have taken responsibility, without even realising it, for many things that are nothing to do with us. For instance, if as a child we tended to care for our family due to the dynamics and family situation, we can grow accustomed to taking the blame for things and feeling responsible when people aren’t happy. This leads to toxic guilt. We not only feel guilty when our family continue to be unhappy but when others do too (because this is the pattern we have adopted).
  • When we have had a period of constructive guilt because we have done something wrong but the guilt remains beyond the point where it is helpful or necessary.

If you feel like you are constantly carrying a heavy burden or like there is a niggling voice saying you shouldn’t have a good time or that you aren’t doing enough, it might be worth asking yourself if you are experiencing toxic guilt. The self-awareness is the first step to doing something about it.

Then try and pinpoint the first time you felt this guilt, how constructive it has ever been (which, if it originated in childhood it probably never was because we should never be responsible for others happiness as a child). This can be heavy stuff so you may need to talk to a professional about this, or at the very least ensure that you are kind to yourself. If you are journalling, for instance, take regular breaks and make sure that you are looking after your inner child.

After this, in many ways as you can, find ways you can physically, metaphorically and emotionally let go of the guilt. That may include physical activities such as kickboxing, dancing or running. It may involve creative pursuits. You could paint a picture of letting go or write a song about it. If you are able to you could try talking about it with people in your safety circle. They may help you to realise that your guilt is misplaced.

Be kind to your inner-child

Existential Guilt

Existential guilt can be something as far reaching and simple as feeling guilty that you live in a prosperous first world country, and that you don’t experience the injustice and poverty that others experience. Or it may be that you have survived an accident or disaster and others didn’t, leaving behind a misplaced feeling of guilt. Alternatively, it may be if a loved one dies you feel guilty that you are still around or feel guilty because you think there is something you could have done to prevent their death. The first two types are forms of what might be called ‘survivor’s guilt’.

When it comes to existential guilt it might be helpful to think of it as our minds’ way of feeling it can control things. It’s awful to think that there are people living without basic human rights or that people died in a terrible disaster. So, our mind tries to back track by saying that there is something we should be doing or should have done. It is important to be kind to yourself and the letting go exercises described in the section above might be helpful.

Carrying excessive guilt around with you can cause disconnection, depression and even physical symptoms like digestive distress or headaches so it is something that shouldn’t be ignored. As women (although I’m sure men also find themselves in these situations) we are often expected to fix things and feel guilty when we don’t. It is important to make sense of what is our responsibility and what isn’t so that we can live the life we wish to live.

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