What causes guilt and how to overcome it

15 February 2018

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Most of us feel guilt from time to time – it’s part of our human nature and completely normal. From guilt about not spending as much time as we’d like with loved ones, saying no to friends or colleagues, to cheating on a partner. And because we’re all unique, we respond to it in different ways.

In its true sense, guilt is a feeling of remorse or sadness over a past action, experienced when we think we’ve caused harm or breached our moral code. It’s our moral compass. Our values and how we process our emotions will all inform the way we react to certain situations. So while one person might catastrophise about a situation, another may not think twice about it.



Types of guilt

Guilt falls into two categories – healthy, appropriate guilt and unhealthy, irrational guilt

Although an unpleasant feeling, ‘appropriate’ guilt helps to regulate our social behaviour1. Feeling guilty for a justifiable reason is a sign that our conscience and cognitive abilities are working properly to stop us repeating or making mistakes. This gives us the opportunity to learn and change our behaviour in the future.

The perpetual feeling of guilt is known as ‘guilt-proneness’and people who experience guilt prone-ness are believed to have a strong connection with their own – and others’ – emotions.

The irrational kind – when we mistakenly assume responsibility for a situation, or overestimate the suffering caused – is another matter entirely and can be very damaging if we don’t take steps to resolve it.

Excessive irrational guilt has been linked to mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, dysphoria (feelings of constant dissatisfaction) and obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD)2. It can cause sufferers to believe they’re a burden to their loved ones and those around them. Unchecked guilt can also result in flagging concentration and productivity, low mood, increased stress and lack of sleep. As a result, our relationships, daily actions and overall outlook on life can be badly affected.



So what can we do to stop these feelings spiralling out of control?

Our Director of Psychological services Dr Mark Winwood has come up with some tips for handling guilt

  1. Practise mindfulness. Mindful meditation focuses on breathing as a way of paying attention to the moment. This can connect the mind and body and help put your guilt into perspective.
  2. Distract yourself with whatever helps you relax – your favourite music, a book, some exercise or just a breath of fresh air.
  3. Be proactive: if you feel that your guilt is justified, and you’ve come to this decision through rational thinking, take action. Learn from your mistakes, make amends and move on.
  4. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Constantly revisiting past mistakes won’tbenefit anyone, least of all yourself.
  5. Remember that perfection doesn’t exist: looking for the perfect solution can lead to mental ‘gridlock’, which is unhelpful. Learn to accept the ‘best’ solution for the circumstances instead and keep a sense of perspective.

There’s no magical solution to guilty feelings. But if they’re justified, then it’s much healthier not to try and get rid of them. Instead, accept them and use them to behave more positively in the future.



Sources

  1. Jarrett, C (2015). British Psychological Society Research Digest: ”Guilt-prone people are highly skilled at recognising other people’s emotions.” https://digest.bps.org.uk/2015/10/15/guilt-prone-people-are-highly-skilled-at-recognising-other-peoples-emotions/
  2. Amodio D.M, Devine, P.G, Harmon-Jones, E (2007). A dynamic model of guilt implications for motivation and self-regulation in the context of prejudice. Volume 18, Number 6, p.524/ pre-approved guilt copy for Bella magazine
  3. Beck, S.J and Niler, E.R (1989). “The relationship among guilt, dysphoria, anxiety and obsessions in a normal population.” Behaviour Research and Therapy 213-220.