Most of the time we are just inflicting an unhealthy form of guilt on ourselves. Often just for not being perfect. But sometimes we have actually done something wrong and having a guilty conscience is healthy.
For example, a guilt after being unfaithful. A guilty conscience of the healthy variety can be used to help get us back on track.
All too often however, healthy guilt is used for self-punishment. Or it can be so painful that it is avoided in other ways. In this article you will get some tips about how to handle healthy guilt, as well as some of the common mechanisms that can stand in the way for you being able to use your guilty conscience to get back on track and closer to the person you want to be - at your foundation.
When a guilty conscience becomes too threatening
It's 10 past 8 and I am on my way out the door. The stress of the morning is overflowing inside me and I can't manage to stop it from affecting my child. I end up yelling, with a hard face and a scary voice. Everything seems to collapse within those small eyes and now it is my stomach that is tied up in knots from guilt (of the healthy variety).
"Now stop that, she is only four years old," I hear my wife say.
This time she is the recipient of my hard gaze.. My reasoning feels shaky but I reply: "This would never have happened if you hadn't held us up!"
The guilt from behaving poorly is not carried internally and I find someone external to place the blame on. This is a defense mechanism that comes into play to avoid the discomfort associated with having done something wrong. The underlying feeling of falling short and the guilty conscience are not acknowledged properly and thus the guilt cannot be used as it was meant to be. As a motivation to take responsibility and try to make things right again.
A guilty conscience, or guilt, is actually a fundamental emotion that helps us to repair damage in our relationships with others. We have all done something that does not synchronize with who we want to be.
Through evolution we have developed the capacity for a guilt in order to reach out to others in a productive manner. We acknowledge, apologize and try to act differently.
Through such reparative processes, the guilty conscience is diminished and is replaced with an improved relationship with others and perception of ourselves.
Even though guilt can be painful, somewhat nauseating and often an anxiety-creating emotion, it is also deeply healing when we manage to look at ourselves in the mirror and accept the consequences when we don't like what we see.
"I'm sorry," I say to my wife. "I have difficulties with taking responsibility for my stuff sometimes."
"My child! Daddy was really stupid for scaring you. You just wanted to look nice before you went out! I'm sorry. Come, let me help you."
This is a healthy action stemming from a healthy sense of self. There is a maturity in acknowledging that I also have some sides that are not only good, and dare to meet others with humility, without having to be completely subservient.
When a guilty conscience is misused for self-punishment
Thus a guilty conscience is meant as a motivation. Something that exists for others. It is not something you should use to push yourself down with. It prevents you from reaching out to others in a productive manner.
Imagine the following: A self-critical mother has a guilty conscience for not being more there for her child. Suppose she sits, crying, in front of her child and says: "I have failed you miserably, I should spend more time with you and I am not a good mother to you, I am not a good person." Instead of the mother taking action and actually doing something about her own presence in her child's life, a pressure is created within the child to comfort the mother.
Or maybe you have been unfaithful and go into the depths of self-disparaging thoughts. You become absent and depressed about the whole thing. What good does this do for your partner? Acknowledge your guilty conscience and allow it to motivate you to change. Do good things for the one you have let down. Learn from your guilt and honor the desire for good from which it springs.
6 tips for handling a guilty about others
Whether you have a guilty conscience for being unfaithful or in other ways have offended, been unjust, crossed boundaries, distanced yourself or what ever it may be. Guilt about your children for being angry. Guilt about your parents, friends, significant other, ex or others you care about. As long as you actually have done something wrong, and there is a reason for your healthy guilt the same management tips are applicable.
- Take complete responsibility for what you have done wrong (at least to yourself).
- Really go into the feeling - and really go out of it. Figure out what it is you actually can do. Pondering and dwelling on it helps no one. You need to take care of yourself in order to manage to repair things with others.
- Attempt to understand, not just judge yourself. This increases the odds of change.
- Remind yourself that you are a member of the highly flawed species homo sapiens.
- Get really into the feeling - and get out of it properly. Conclude with what you can actually do. Pondering and lingering helps no one. You need to take care of yourself in order to be able to repair for the other.
- Limit your guilty conscience to the actions you have done. Avoid placing a global stamp of shame over your entire person and self. All good people have something to confess to.
- Never feel your guilty conscience without honoring your deeper values by creating something constructive with it - even if the damage in the actual situation is irreparable.
If you are greatly troubled with a guilty conscience and are considering psychological help, you can read more about what you can expect from therapy with us here.If you have already decided to give it try you can schedule an appointment with a psychologist here.
We wish you the best with the important project you are embarking upon.