How Twisted Guilt Could Affect Your Life

The fact is, guilt helps people take corrective action, improve themselves, and have more empathy for those around them. Being able to forgive yourself after feeling guilty is essential to self-esteem, which is required to enjoy life and relationships. Despite the difficulties with self-acceptance, many people feel stigmatized by unhealthy guilt. You might be overwhelmingly convinced that you are to blame and harshly judge yourself at first, only to continue to do so, or guilt might simmer in your unconscious. Either way, this kind of guilt is unhealthy. Guilt keeps you stuck in the past, keeps you from moving forward, and keeps you from having success, pleasure, and fulfilling relationships. Guilt drains your power, can cause depression and illness, and prevents you from achieving success, happiness, and fulfilling relationships.

You may feel embarrassment and guilt for your thoughts and feelings, such as wishing someone pain, misfortune, or death; or perhaps lack of feeling, such as not returning someone's love or friendship; or maybe not feeling grief over the loss of someone you love. It is not uncommon for people to feel guilt for leaving their faith or not meeting the expectations of their parents. Despite being unreasonable at times, one might feel guilty for someone else's thoughts, attributes, feelings, and actions. Often people judge themselves based on the arguments of others, who are blaming them or making false accusations, which they believe to be true. Codependent people often blame others for their behavior due to their low self-esteem. A spouse might accept her husband's blame and feel guilty about his drinking or problem with addiction. It is common for abuse or sexual assault victims to feel guilt and shame, despite the fact they are the ones who were abused, and it is the perpetrator that is culpable. People who initiate divorce often feel guilty even though the marital problems were shared by both parties or were primarily due to their partners.

Guilt should be distinguishable from shame, which makes a person feel inferior, inadequate, or poorly about who they are instead of what they did. Feelings of guilt and shame can develop when guilt is irrational and not resolved. Shame does not serve a constructive purpose. It does the opposite by destroying self-esteem and destroying relationships. The self-centered nature of it promotes self-preoccupation and undermines the self and relationships. It may be difficult to concentrate on what you are feeling guilty about if you already have low self-esteem or issues around shame, but it is necessary to rationalize it to move past it. Trying to avoid self-examination by rationalizing or burying it may temporarily solve the problem but will not bring about self-forgiveness. Alternatively, beating yourself up prolongs guilt and shame and damages your self-esteem; while, accepting responsibility and taking remedial action improves it.

The following steps can be taken to help you to feel less guilty: I refer to actions as well as thoughts and feelings:

1. Taking responsibility for your actions when you rationalize them is necessary. "Okay, I did (or said) it."

2. Write about the way you felt before, during, and after the experience?

3. Consider your needs and whether they were being met at that moment. If not, why not?

4. Did you have any motivations? Who or what motivated you to behave the way you did?

5. Did your past come back to haunt you? Write about it in a story, including dialogue and your


6. Do you remember the kind of treatment you received growing up? Were you forgiven, judged, or punished? Was anyone hard on you? Were you ashamed?

7. Consider what standards you use to evaluate yourself. Which values are yours, your parents', your friends', your spouse's, or those of your religion? Are you looking for their approval? No one wants to live up to someone else's expectations. Their desires and values are more important. You may sacrifice your happiness, seeking approval, or you may sacrifice yourself in search of approval.

8. Be honest with yourself about your beliefs and values and decide which of those you agree with. For example, "Disrespecting you in private is okay as long as no one else is around to hear or see it." Have you been honest with the values you held during the event?

9. Is your behavior consistent with your values? If it is not, examine your beliefs, thoughts, and emotions that contributed to your actions. What may have motivated you to leave your values behind? Do you realize that you harm yourself when you violate your values by doing so? This causes more harm to yourself than disappointing someone else.

10. When you reflect on the past, what healthier beliefs, thoughts, feelings, or behaviors would have contributed to more desirable results?

© Copyright. Actualization of Self Institute, LLC. & Denise R Dunkley. All rights reserved.

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