Almost all of us feel guilty from time to time.
If it forces to correct mistakes, then everything goes only for good - psychologists call such guilt productive. Another thing is if guilt becomes permanent or inadequately strong and begins to negatively affect your well-being, actions, and quality of life. We tell you what to do if guilt has become unproductive.
Why we feel guilty
Guilt is the complex of feelings a person feels when he or she commits-or thinks he or she is committing-the wrong thing. It signals mistakes and motivates us to correct them and not to repeat them in the future.
Guilt is an unpleasant feeling, but in many cases it can be useful. It is one of the ancient adaptive mechanisms that help people regulate behavior and maintain strong social bonds. Lack of guilt can be a symptom of psychopathy or another disorder.
The intensity of guilt is influenced by a person's personality traits. For example, those who have strongly developed empathy are more likely to feel guilty.
But this has its pluses. Studies show that especially guilt-prone people are less likely to get behind the wheel drunk and generally less likely to commit offenses. And criminals who acutely experience guilt while incarcerated have lower recidivism rates after release.
In addition, people who know how to feel guilty usually arouse more trust in those around them, and they are more likely to justify that trust. Therefore, they turn out to be reliable colleagues, good managers, and romantic partners.
But all these advantages appear only if a person inclined to feeling of guilt knows how to experience it correctly: take responsibility for really committed mistakes - and forgive oneself for them.
There is nothing good in feeling guilty all the time for everything that happens in the world. Guilt always triggers a stress reaction in the body. If it is not interrupted, it can become chronic. It can lead to emotional burnout and sleep problems, and increase the risks of developing an anxiety disorder and depression.
The other danger is that unceasing feeling of guilt can force a person to make unprofitable decisions. For example, he or she may start spending inadequate amounts on strangers, jeopardizing his or her own well-being. Or constantly deal with the problems of a former lover whom he once left in pain. To keep this from happening, it's important to learn how to keep your guilt within adequate bounds. Here are a few ways.
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Ask forgiveness from others - and forgive yourself
The surest way to get rid of guilt is to admit that you did something wrong, apologize to everyone affected, and try to eliminate the consequences. Professor Susan Whitburn of the University of Massachusetts, who researches guilt, suggests this algorithm.
Don't try to suppress guilt. Research shows that this leads to increased negative emotions. Rather, admit to yourself that you feel guilty. This will help you get your emotions under control.
Think back to exactly what you did. It will not be pleasant - most likely, for a while, the feeling of guilt will increase. Despite this, try to approach the task as responsibly as possible - remember as many details as possible.
Do not try to find an excuse. Instead, think about whether you were trying, committing a mistake, to satisfy a need. This will help you adjust your behavior in the future and prevent a repeat of the mistake.
Let's say you feel guilty because you yelled at your partner without reason. But not because you wanted to be cruel to him. But because recently he began to distance himself, and it scares you. Consequently, in order to no longer arrange unfounded scandals, it is necessary to discuss with your partner relations.
Sincerely apologize to those who have offended. Be sure to tell them that you understand how much pain and discomfort caused them and that sincerely regret it. To demonstrate to the person that you fully understand exactly what you are guilty of to them, use "I-speak." For example: "I'm sorry for what I did."
And try to avoid phrases like, "I'm sorry you're hurt." They show that although you are sorry that the other person is going through an unpleasant emotion, it's as if you don't see anything wrong with your behavior.
Back up your remorse with action. If the damage from your actions is material - make amends. If psychological - start to behave differently with the affected person. And if for some reason you cannot directly do something for the victim, help someone else.
For example, send a donation to a charity. Atonement by action is not punishment. It's reparation, which the guilty party has to pay if they want to alleviate the guilt.
Forgive yourself. To do this, say to yourself, "I did everything I could to right the wrong. And I will try not to make it again in the future. So I forgive myself and allow myself to move forward."
This point, according to psychologists, despite the seeming formality of it, is as important as the previous ones. Feelings of guilt are subjective, we can continue to feel it, even when other people have long forgiven us. Therefore, it is important to convince yourself that the situation is over, and therefore there is no need to continue to berate yourself.
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Don't take on too much.
People can feel guilty not only for what they have done, but also for much larger problems. For example, for allowing humanity to drive the planet into ecological disaster, a phenomenon described by a separate term, "ecovina. Or for the actions of politicians they did not elect. Or for the fact that there are still groups of people in the world whose rights are infringed upon.
A person may understand perfectly well that he himself is doing nothing wrong. But the realization that there is injustice in the world and that there are people who suffer from it will make him suffer.
Despite the fact that this type of guilt is based on moral values, psychologists often consider it unproductive: the problems that must be solved in order to stop feeling guilty are global. The realization of this paralyzes many people, and they get stuck in a state of guilt for years.
When this kind of guilt becomes completely unbearable, it is useful to use a method conventionally called the circle of responsibility:
1. Take a piece of paper and write on it how many percent you feel guilty about a particular global situation. Let's say 90 percent means that 10 percent of the blame lies on someone else.
2. Then draw a circle. And ask yourself the question: who else besides me is to blame for this situation? And how much of it is his fault? And then shade the segments of the circle corresponding to those percentages. The result you get a scheme that will help you understand how much you are really to blame for the situation.
3. Think about what you can do to have some kind of effect on the situation that you are concerned about. For example, if you're worried about ecology - start collecting garbage separately, and try not to buy unnecessary things. Do not forget that even a minimum effort is better than complete inaction. This will help you not to feel guilty all the time.
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Analyze your stereotypes
Let Go of the Guilt author Valorie Burton describes how the most unexpected things become occasions for guilt--like cornflakes.
Burton's son really likes to eat breakfast cereal. It's convenient: you don't have to waste time cooking. But the trouble is that Burton herself is a firm believer: a good mother should always feed her child a breakfast of several healthy dishes with porridge or scrambled eggs, toast and fruit. That's what her mother always cooked for her as a child.
Every time she poured cereal on her son's plate, she felt deeply guilty before him. Although the child himself such a breakfast is only happy. Such examples Burton calls fake guilt.
In addition to cultural attitudes, the triggers of fake guilt can be unclear expectations of oneself. For example, people tend to blame themselves for "not eating right" or "not exercising enough." Even though they have never defined what exactly they mean by "right" or "enough." And it turns out that people berate themselves for not fulfilling conditions they have no idea about.
Another cause of faux guilt is outdated ideas about oneself. Let's say it's unfair to blame yourself for not being able to work as hard after having a baby as you did before maternity. Or that because of the tortured you a few days of insomnia, you again forgot the keys at home, although before - that is, in a sleepy state - have never done so.
To combat the fake guilt Burton advises to apply the method of cognitive-behavioral therapy:
1. When feeling guilty, don't give in to that feeling automatically. Try to analyze it. Ask yourself: "Did I really do something wrong? And if so, what exactly? Has someone really been hurt by my actions?" If the victim is undetectable, try to figure out if the very unreflected and outdated attitudes are triggering your guilt. To do this, you can try to remember what thoughts were going through your head just before you felt the guilt.
Having found the source of guilt, try to describe the situation in a new way. Say, instead of "It's my fault for feeding my son cereal again," say, "I feel guilty about feeding my son cereal because I have a belief that it's wrong. But in reality, I'm not hurting anyone." That way you'll change your attitude about the situation a little bit - and the guilt will diminish.
3. List the evidence for why you are not hurting anyone. Burton explains that the goal is not to find an excuse for yourself, but to describe your feelings more accurately.
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Don't blame yourself if you are luckier than others, but help them
Another type of guilt is called survivor's guilt. It is usually experienced by survivors of war or serious disaster. For example, cases of survivor's guilt have been reported in large numbers in the United States by relatives of those who died during the COVID-19 epidemic.
In these cases, people are usually advised to seek help from a professional. He or she can help look at the tragedy from the outside, which brings relief.
But some psychologists also call it the guilt felt by people who have been more successful than those around them. Life really isn't fair: some are lucky from birth, and some grow up in an environment where a child's basic needs are not met.
But even if you are lucky in many ways, it is much more productive not to feel guilty, but to help those who are less fortunate than you.
And, of course, do not blame yourself for the fact that the parents have laid down their lives for your success. It's better to replace the guilt with gratitude for the people who put in so much effort so that you could achieve more in life than they did. Especially since it was their conscious choice, which you could not influence in any way.
Give yourself the right to be wrong
To prevent guilt from becoming chronic, it's worth remembering that each of us, from time to time, makes mistakes or acts unfairly toward others. And that doesn't make us all unequivocally bad people. Especially as long as we try to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences.
So even if you've seriously wronged others, there's no point in berating and punishing yourself for it for a long time. You'll only increase your stress, but the situation will not be corrected.
It is better to think about what you would say to your friend, if he was in this situation. Surely you wouldn't shame him, but would give a more adequate assessment of what he did, and find words of support and consolation.
Guilt is not a pleasant experience. And the fact that a person is experiencing it, gives the right to sympathy. Including from himself.