Do you struggle with a guilty conscience for no reason, for everything and anything, chronically and constantly?
As addressed in an earlier blog article, a guilty conscience or a feeling of guilt is basically a healthy emotion that can be used to help us to move closer to being who we want to be. When guilt becomes chronic and nagging, most of the time it is an unhealthy, irrational form of guilt.
Often it is simply pure psychological warfare against yourself.
This article will give 12 tips on how you can deal with a guilty conscience, with a particular focus on how you can separate between healthy and unhealthy guilt.
Chronic guilt for no reason - breaking the illusion
One of my clients said to me: “My mother says that having a guilty conscience is just part of being female”. I could not disagree more. It is one of the obstacles of being a female. And male, for that matter.
Some people say, “That’s just how I am”. When are troubled by a guilty conscience for no reason I believe that is the opposite of who you are. It is a method of keeping who you are down. Preventing you from being who you are or becoming who you really should be. It is a limiting factor on your being. A guilty conscience is just as much you as a cancerous tumor is the one with the cancer is as much you as a cancerous tumor is the cancerous.
Most of us know deep down inside that we are not directly bad people. But we still we bombard ourselves with guilt. What drives this?
For some people it’s like this: I know that I am abusing my brain by bothering myself over things that really are not that important. I know I am harder on myself than others but can't manage to do anything about it.
In other cases, one is in doubt. A small or larger part of you believes that you have reasons to feel bad about yourself or even worse: Maybe you believe that giving yourself a guilty conscience is a good thing and will make you pull yourself together.
In the worst-case scenario, you may think that you deserve to be bombarded and troubled because you simply do not deserve anything else. If you feel this way I have good news: It is hardly true. And you are in good company. A surprisingly high number of good people feel this way or have felt this way.
One of the best things about being a psychologist is being able to aid in the breakdown of these illusions.
Below are some points that can give you an idea about what is behind underreacted guilt, some tips for management and not least help to separate when your guilty conscience is unhealthy and should not be listened to.
1. Constant guilt - is there really something to fix?
If you have feelings of guilt it should be because you have actually done something wrong. If you have done something wrong it is only natural to apologize and try to make it right again. Preferably, if this is the case, try to take action. Your guilty conscience is probably healthy and should be listened to. You can learn more about such cases in the blog article, "Feeling Guilty About Someone? Psychological First Aid for Those Who Have Actually Done Something Wrong".
If there really isn’t anything to fix, or if it would be a strange thing to apologize to someone about, it is most likely that you are simply tormenting yourself too much.
2. A guilty conscience without Reason - role reversal
If another person had done (or not done) the same thing as you are feeling guilty about, how would you feel or what would you think about them? Just as poorly?
If the answer is no: Take responsibility for the fact that you have different rules for yourself compared to others within an inner discriminatory regime and decide to adopt a more human attitude towards yourself.
If the answer is yes, I would think and/or feel negatively if this were another person: Take a moment. Are you demanding too much of both yourself and others? If this is the case: Where does this come from? Have you identified yourself with an overly demanding figure in your life? A parent with high demands that constantly has critical comments or withholds acknowledgment of success? Even though you did not really like this sort of strictness. If feel guilty for eating, have you directly or indirectly been raised to feel guilty for things like that?
If the answer here is yes: It will often be necessary to work with relating to what one actually believes and feels about parental strictness in order to break free from it. Often one has to connect with how painful, difficult and frustrating this actually has been. Such work can be difficult to do on your own.
3. Constant feelings of guilt - how would someone else have reacted?
How would someone you look up react if they were in your shoes? Would they also blame themselves? If yes, maybe this is something you have to look more deeply at. If no: Why should you punish yourself harder than others? Are you running a regime of discrimination against yourself again? Is there something deep inside you are obeying or imitating in your strictness towards yourself? If so, begin to relate to what you actually think about that.
4. Ask a friend!
What an aid it can be if we just manage to take in what a friend is actually saying. Si først: nå vil jeg ikke at du snakker meg etter munnen. I, like everyone else, can have my blind sides and want to take complete and full responsibility for my actions. Explain the situation and ask if you should have a guilty conscience or do something about the situation. Notice the ways you eventually will try to nullify supportive statements.
5. Are you misinterpreting?
You believe you have hurt someone and feel guilt. But double check this. Have you really caused any pain? Often it can be old “schematics” that control the way we interpret the reactions of others. Your mother may have fallen apart at the slightest thing, but your girlfriend may be fine with you canceling a date.
6. Avoid catastrophic thinking
If you have caused pain, how bad can it really be? Avoid catastrophic thinking. Ask the question: What’s the worst that can happen? Often times it isn't as bad as we automatically assume. Catastrophes are rare. Are there other, more likely, outcomes? Focus on everything that remains and is intact.
7. Accept that you will have false alarms
Just like an overactive smoke detector. That even if you feel like you’ve done something wrong this is often untrue. If you really know this you have to take responsibility for this and remind yourself of that when old, automatic processes are triggered.
8. Feelings of guilt for no reason - are you taking responsibility for someone else’s stuff?
Are you involved in the “blame game"? Has someone drawn you into your feelings of guilt? And now you have fallen into the trap? In this case place the responsibility back where it belongs. You can start by reading the blog article, "Do you Have a Guilty Conscience for Everything and Anything? How to Withstand Partaking in the “Blame Game”..
9. The antidote for chronic feelings of guilt - holding others accountable
Difficulties with chronic feelings of guilt for no reason often stem from taking on excessive responsibility. You take responsibility for other people’s things. This can stem from that is difficult for you to place responsibility on others. Be willing to hold others accountable. Have expectations that people just have to deal with you and your stuff. Other people are the ones primarily responsible for their own lives and pain. Making demands and expecting something from others is, in many ways, a respectful act. Ultimately, not holding others accountable is a disservice. Are you wasting time and energy on trying to understand the other person? Is there no limit to how far you are willing to go before becoming annoyed with others but will quickly attack yourself?
10. Guilt - feeling or defense?
Could it be possible that a guilty conscience is covering other emotions? What do you really think about what the other person did? Can it be that you actually dislike it? Do you have a guilty conscience because you became irritated with someone you feel you should not be irritated with? Many people with chronic guilt without cause have considerable repression of aggression. Activation of your own boundaries can in itself create both anxiety and guilty. In these cases ISTDP is a good method that works structurally with raising your emotional tolerance levels.
11. Feelings of guilt for thoughts, words and actions? mind words and deeds?
Is the guilty conscience I am feeling actually about something I have done or, rather, something I have felt or thought? Often, we punish ourselves for things as if we actually have done something - there should be space given to impulses, hopes, feelings and thoughts that we, despite it all, are doing nothing with. For example, thoughts that sometimes it would be nice if someone who is close to us, but who have a problematic relationship with, could just disappear. It is more common than one would think and is a taboo that is important to break.
12. A chronic feeling of guilt for no reason - help yourself in the process
If you struggle with finding a way out of these patterns: Have compassion for yourself and attempt to maintain a constructive, inner focus as far as you are able. Avoid repetitive complaints, really go into the process but also really out of it. If you can progress no further by yourself you may have to add something new to your process. No one should have to go through life with a bad conscience for no reason.
If you are interested in therapy with Psykologvirke you can learn more by clicking here.
We wish you the best with this important project.