Guilt and how I manage it...
I think I’ve felt guilty on and off for most of my life. Since childhood, I’d feel guilty for doing something “bad”, or for hurting someone’s feelings, for getting someone in trouble, or for being “lazy” or “selfish” or “mean”. I’d also feel guilty before I’d even done anything – like wanting to take the last biscuit or wanting to use the bathroom first or being about to use up the last of the toilet roll. Growing up in a big Catholic family, the list was endless! And the sensation of guilt could be unbearable. I’d instinctively want to get rid of it. I experience it acutely as a heavy, sinking feeling in my chest, like I’m bad and must be punished. I remember the dread I’d experience, waiting to be found out and told off or worse. It was bloody awful!
While studying for this course, I decided to write one of my essays on guilt. I’m glad I did. Reading and thinking about guilt was so interesting (to me, anyway, having experienced guilt on a regular basis since childhood). I found out there are different types of guilt, and that most of them, we don’t need to be worried about. I couldn’t believe it! But first, I want to look at the meaning of guilt.
My dictionary defines guilt with two meanings; “the fact of having committed an offence or crime” and “a feeling of having done something wrong” (Oxford Paperback Dictionary, 2001). Moving aside from the legal definition of guilt, other definitions also seem to centre around the perception of wrongdoing: that a rule has been broken, a line crossed, that one has erred, and one necessarily feels bad about this. Theorists including Sigmund Freud have written about how these feelings of not liking ourselves can come from our upbringing, and how these feelings have been deliberately used by society to control unwanted behaviour, and to motivate us to do the right thing (Freud, published in 2002). This certainly rang true for me, thinking about church sermons on sin and the guilt I’d feel as a child, entering the confessional box. I recall taking my penance gratefully, just so I could feel absolved of my sin, and free. So, I discovered that guilt is a powerful motivator.
Person-centred therapist Richard Worsley (2009) has defined two types of guilt, rational or moral guilt and non-rational or neurotic guilt. The first type, rational guilt has been recognised as an appropriate response when we have done something which causes harm. That this can be useful in helping us to take responsibility for our actions, in recognising where we have “done wrong”, and by motivating us not to do it again. Two counselling professors, Dave Mearns and Brian Thorne (2013), remark how guilt can help us to grow, through reconnecting with our internal valuing system (which instinctively knows when something feels right). Regarding incidents when I have genuinely f****d up, I interpret guilt as the realisation that my behaviour was not true to my values. This aligns with the definition of rational guilt, around causing harm, since I value caring about others, and I felt motivated to learn from each incident.
Psychology Professor Edward V. Stein (1969) wrote that neurotic guilt (non-rational guilt - the second type), is caused by us making a mistaken judgement about ourselves, based on the opinions of how others say we should behave. Additionally, Stein (1969) says how non-rational guilt is often motivated by our fear of punishment, rather than thinking that we have "done wrong”. Tim Lomas, a researcher on wellbeing, comments how guilt is often excessive or unwarranted (Lomas, 2016). I would certainly agree that much of my childhood guilt (involving perceived selfishness or laziness) was either non-rational or unwarranted and was accompanied by an intense fear of retribution, from people who judged my behaviour as wrong or somehow lacking.
Psychologists and psychotherapists have addressed a third type of guilt, existential guilt, which does not correspond to a transgression of values, but a transgression of self, being defined as not realising our potential (May and Yalom, 1995) and that this guilt is unavoidable (Cooper, 2017, citing German philosopher Heidegger, 1962). This is the guilt we feel when we can’t be everywhere at once, doing all that we expect ourselves to do. For me, housework is a big trigger of existential guilt! And from being a person-centred therapist, there is a potential dilemma with every response to a client. For whichever aspect of the client’s experience I select to respond, there are invariably other aspects unselected, thereby a direction has been chosen. As person-centred therapists aim to be non-directive in our approach, the resulting guilt seems unavoidable!
So, the first thing I do when I feel that familiar ache of guilt is ask myself – what type of guilt is this? If it is unavoidable, then I feel worrying about it is pointless (and never-ending), so I shouldn’t worry about it. Similarly, if I think what I have done is not morally wrong / “bad”, but I am only worried about what others may think (like wearing a particularly questionable outfit), then my actions are controversial but defensible, so I shouldn’t worry about that either. Especially since I realise that I can’t control what other people think. Unless of course, I have broken a law or professional code of conduct, in which case I definitely should worry about it! But then, I know I’d view such an event as a genuine f**k up and so I’d be unlikely to do it in the first place.
Learning from contemplating guilt has meant that I spend far less time worrying about my actions (or inaction) and has resulted in experiencing less stress in my life. I realise that as a caring, considerate person, I hardly ever genuinely f**k up, so I don’t really need to feel guilty that often. I imagine this is also the case for many other people reading this. I hope I’ve given you something interesting to think about. (But I’ll try not to lose any sleep if I’ve bored your socks off! 😉) Thanks for reading.
Cooper, M. (2017) Existential Therapies. 2nd ed. London: Sage Publications.
Freud, S. (2002) Civilisation and Its Discontents. London: Penguin Books.
Lomas, T. (2016) The Positive Power of Negative Emotions. London: Piatkus.
May, R. and Yalom, I. (1995) Existential Psychotherapy. In: Corsini, R.J. and Wedding, D. (Eds.) Current Psychotherapies, pp. 262-292. 5th ed. Itasca: F.E. Peacock Publishers Inc.
Mearns, D. Thorne, B. with McLeod, J. (2013) Person-Centred Counselling in Action, 4th ed. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Stein, E.V. (1969) Guilt: Theory and Therapy. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.
Worsley, R. (2009) Process Work in Person-Centred Therapy. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.