How to Manage Guilt

“Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change.”    

–Gretchen Rubin

In my experience, guilt is mostly about a person’s core values, which are shaped by our culture, upbringing, and socialization. Some cultures use ‘guilting’ as a parenting strategy (i.e. to make children feel shameful about their behaviour in an effort to promote good little boys and girls). While this might work in the short-term, the underlying long-term message it conveys to the child is a lack of unconditional positive regard from the parent, meaning, (from the child’s perspective), if they do something undesirable, they will be subject to humiliation and possible rejection by their loved ones. This in turn seems to promote anxiety in the child (and later adult), because who wouldn’t feel anxious if they believed they were always on the verge of possible humiliation and guilt?

Moreover, it’s problematic because we often unconsciously absorb the values held by our culture, parents, and society, which form the basis of our internal self-monitoring system which guides us through life according to our morals and principles. That is, we learn lessons in childhood which form the basis of our values, and we tend to develop a subconscious parental-type voice we use to govern our own behaviour as adults to ensure we stay aligned with our idea of “being a good person” (as a generalization for most of us anyways). So in this way, guilt can become a predominant schema that automatically arises to keep ourselves in check, but it may not always be necessarily rationally-based or warranted. And if it tends to be a very strong automatic impulse, it can take over.

Some steps to managing guilt before it manages you:

  1. Let go of regret. We can’t undo the past, but we can learn from it and hear what our emotions have to say about our past decisions. In this way, we can welcome the lessons guilt has to offer and become transcended rather than stuck by them.
  1. Acknowledge the guilt and listen to what it is telling you. What’s the underlying message? Perhaps you feel you made a mistake, acted selfishly, or did something embarrassing and can’t get past it. What are ways you can reconcile these uncomfortable actions? Do you need to make amends with someone you care about? Do you need to change your approach going forward? Are you acting in a manner that respects both yourself and the other person involved? If you’ve done everything you can to handle the situation with the grace and integrity it deserves, simply acknowledge your guilt and move on. Often the most guilty are the most self-conscious, strongly principled individuals. So find reassurance in the fact that you’re likely very considerate overall, therefore others can forgive the odd well-intentioned mishap or two. No one’s perfect.

Mantra: We don’t have to let every automatic thought or feeling we have control us.

  1. Develop an internal dialogue with it (yes, I’m actually advocating for talking to yourself!) It might sound like this “Hi guilt. Thanks for telling me that this is important. I’ve done everything I can do to be kind, compassionate, and respectful in this situation. So I’m doing my best. I’ve got this one covered.” (You might remind yourself of all the associated efforts you’ve made –I like to count them on my fingers.) And try your best to move on. Note that it may take time for the guilt to subside, but once you’ve acknowledged and validated the feeling, it will tend to dissipate over time.
  1. Learn to Re-Parent Yourself Compassionately. No blaming here. Most of our parents did the best they could with what they had. But even still, some of their approaches to parenting may have inadvertently had a negative effect on us. If you think you’ve been parented by ‘guilting’ and are controlled by it as a result, learn to identify the guilt as it automatically arises and try re-parenting yourself using more affirming, compassionate language (i.e. instead of using self-shaming language e.g.: “I’m such an idiot! Why did I do that?!” try a more understanding reframe: “I made a mistake. It happens. How can I approach this differently in the future?”) This can help undo the patterns of your past and set you free!

Just Because You Think it Doesn’t Mean it’s True

We commonly tend to ascribe too much meaning to our thoughts. After all, they’re largely responsible for guiding us through our daily lives, and we’d be lost without them; so why wouldn’t we naturally assume our thoughts to be all-important? While this is true and thoughts are important, falling into this fallacy overlooks the nature of how the brain works and the purpose thoughts serve. Antiquated views coming out of the Renaissance era venerating the importance of the mind and intellect over lowly emotions don’t help either, but that’s neither here nor there. (I happen to believe that emotions are equally as important, for the record.)

So how does the brain work?

Everything we think creates and strengthens neuropathways (connections) in the brain. The more we think things, the stronger, faster, and supercharged these thoughts become (they can even become super fast and sneaky, therefore subconscious and we might not even notice them anymore). All this relates to physical structures that are set up in the brain and reinforced the more you practice a skill or thought (hence why practice makes perfect).

Why does this matter to you?

Well, if we know how our brains work, we can harness this knowledge and put it to use when things aren’t working for us, for instance, when our thoughts aren’t serving us well. I see this amongst my clients all the time. Clients come in clinging to their old beliefs that may have once served them well, but are now causing terrible anxiety or depression. And it’s often very difficult for them to consider that alternative perspectives might have some validity (because their brains are used to thinking this way, not because what I’m suggesting is necessarily false). My work is often influenced by a mindfulness-based perspective, which sees the mind as having evolved simply to produce thoughts to make sense of our surroundings and keep us safe, just as the heart has evolved to pump blood, and our lungs have evolved to circulate oxygen within us. Mindfulness adopts a mechanistic view of these functions. From this perspective, we see that if our brains have been practicing thinking a certain way for a long time, they will automatically gravitate to thinking that way whether it’s true or not in our present situations. But we tend to make the mistake of believing the thought whether it’s relevant to the present situation or not! (Think of our tendency to make false assumptions based on past experiences.) In this way, our past references colour our interpretation of the present and the future, which is essentially how we make sense of our surroundings. But we can’t let this thinking process totally control us. That’s when we get into all kinds of mistaken beliefs (Google the 15 most common cognitive distortions for example).

So how can you use this information?

Notice when you’re having repetitive distressing thoughts. Next time they come up, instead of automatically believing them, pause and notice your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Be curious about where the thought is coming from. Perhaps it’s just an “old tape recording” from the past. Is it serving you well? If not, simply note that your brain is really good at thinking that thought, that it’s not necessarily true, and mindfully resume what you were doing before you were rudely interrupted by the intrusive thought. Or use mindful distraction (i.e. activities carefully chosen based on their likelihood to have a helpful outcome for you). Note that this is a skill that requires practice, and it will take time for your brain to get used to thinking this way. If you need more support in this practice, join a mindfulness meditation group in your community, such as MBCT or MBSR, or I’m happy to connect with you for a counselling session to discuss this in person. Good luck and be well!

Our thoughts are not facts