Psychology Addict # 61 | Talking About Guilt.

in #psychologylast year (edited)

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This post has been mostly inspired by a comment that was left on my feed last week, which was in the context of the advances seen in the understanding of mental health issues. The comment contained an observation of how over the past decade progress seems a far-fetched notion when it comes to depression, and how only a change in life-style can truly tackle this seemingly ubiquitous problem.

I then thought it would be interesting to discuss with you, about some aspects of life that tend to bring people down, and oftentimes even lead them to a state of depression. And, from there, discuss how aspects that weigh us down to the point of paralyses can be objectively examined and, subsequently, replaced by perspectives that clear the way for a renewed mindset and approach to life which sparks a more hopeful, positive outlook towards the self.

The aspect we’re going to discuss today is: guilt.

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The cambridge.org dictionary definition of guilt is the following:

A feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have because you have done something wrong, such as causing harm to another person.

Before we delve into the main focus of this post, I’d like to quickly mention that there are individuals out there who tend to feel guilty even without having caused any harm to others.

Cognitive Distortion: Inaccurate thoughts that prompt distress and angst.
Oftentimes, this results from a cognitive distortion termed personification [1], which refers to the tendency to assume responsibility for the misfortunes and pain of others. This piece, however, talks about cases which involve guilt as a consequence of a wrongdoing that actually occurred.

That’s why the above definition helps me to go straight into the heart of the matter:

When You’ve Done Something Wrong.

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Whenever we are faced with this realisation it feels as if a little devil suddenly took seat on our shoulder and began to whisper in our ear: ”you’re a bad person”. And here is an interesting thing, while there are individuals who aren’t eve fazed by having upset someone, there are those who’ll attach this notion of badness to the very core of who they are, and inadvertently step into an existence of anxiety, shame and feelings of inferiority.

Generally, anxiety stems from the fear of retaliation. Like Ben, who was found having an affair and is now afraid that his partner will pay back with the same coin. Shame - due to the concern that others see you as a lesser person after your mistaken action became known. Similar to Cindy, a young lady who pocketed the money of a sale in the Bed & Breakfast where she works, but was filmed by the security camera. And finally, the sense of inferiority which results from the rationale: “if I did such thing, I am an inferior person”.

Now, we all agree that both betraying a life partner and stealing are inappropriate, hurtful behaviours. Something which Ben and Cindy wholeheartedly acknowledge. In these cases what normally happens next is that the person who’s being consumed by guilt believes that they then deserve to suffer. I believe this sort of thinking has its roots in sociocultural values. As if, the only way a person has to show accountability for their wrongdoings is through suffering. As if the fetters of guilt are the only means to restrain people from acting immorally and impulsively.

Still, if guilt is the punishment you assigned to yourself in order to pay for your offence. The obvious questions to ask are: how long is the sentence for? 30 years? 3 years? Most importantly, once you’ve served your time will you be prepared to end your self-inflicted suffering and move on? Or, are you going for a life-time sentence? Why?

Regret Vs. Guilt.

My main objection towards this sort of attitude is that it fails to foster a fruitful existence.

Buddhism distinguishes regret/repentance from guilt. The cognitive behavioural approach elucidates this distinction by explaining that regret is linked to behaviour, whilst guilt aims at the self [2]. Something which, consequently, results in a cycle of negativity that is inadvertently created when this self-defeating emotion sets in.

It looks pretty much like this:

The Cycle of Guilt = BS Copy.jpg

This cycle builds a convincing case towards one’s “badness”, which further reinforces guilt and consequently self-inflicted suffering. It drives you to analyse your emotional and psychological state as a judge, but one who does not care for acquittal or mitigation.

To make matters worse, the underlying belief that you are “no good” only promotes further bad behaviour by means of counterattacks and defensiveness. Think about it. You have labelled yourself guilty, now it’s only natural you’re constantly on the defence: shielding yourself from criticism and growing even more insecure about your shortcomings. It’s not a surprise that the emotional chaos brought by guilt can paralyse people into a depressive state. It’s undoubtedly overwhelming.

From Judge to Detective.

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Nevertheless, this is not the only way one has to address the errors one inevitably makes in life. One thing psychologists like to say to clients when they talk about their angst is that rather than viewing their emotional distress from the standpoint of a mean judge, view it as a detective! Take on the case and search for information, for evidence. With objectivity.

Embrace the sadness elicited by the regret of your wrong actions (not your wrong self ). And begin the investigative inquiry with the aim to: (1) acknowledge the mistake, (2) learn from it, and (3) implement changes.
In general, people refrain from acknowledging the mistakes they make because it causes them sadness. Sadness is a most aversive feeling, especially in Western societies. Hence, whatever circumstance may bring this emotion about it’s just left to be dealt with “later”.

Further, irrespective of the magnitude of our errors when looked through the lens of guilt, they make us appear evil. This is a disturbing realization. Those were precisely Cindy’s words: “I’m evil for stealing”. But Cindy also felt deeply sad and ashamed for her behaviour.

  1. While stealing might be an “evil” action it falls short from defining Cindy’s true self. A self she discovered to be deeply thoughtful and humane because of the very sadness she allowed herself to feel as a consequence of her wrongdoing. The evil label, subsequently, became no longer suitable. Then, Cindy began to see herself with love and respect. A renewed self-perception that greatly facilitated the development of strategies for making amendments.

  2. Which is precisely what Ben did. After he let his guard down (due to a newly acquired self-perception) he was able to recognise the extent of the pain his actions caused to his long-term partner. After understanding that despite putting their relationship at risk he is no monster. Only then he was able to apologise for his indiscretion (rather than give excuses for it), explain himself and, finally, communicate his insecurities as well as willingness to move forward.

  3. Cindy learnt that she needed to get her finances in order and not put herself in a position where she is so tight for money that her desperation clouds her good judgement. And Ben realised that being honest about how lonely he’d been feeling lately actually made his partner feel wanted, and not harassed.


So, just in case you need to embark on a similar investigation, here are some questions that can help you with your detective work ➙ ✦ Am I judging my self or scrutinising my actions? ✦ Have I learnt from my wrongdoings, or am I simply ruminating in a self-defeating way? ✦ Am I prepared to let my guard down, and take responsibility for the hurt my behaviour has caused? ✦ How has this contributed to my personal growth?

Promoting Psychological Well-Being.

One of the primary causes of psychological issues stem from our tendency to avoid dealing with our inner problems. Sometimes, we even naively hope that our personal-issues will just: puff, magically disappear. Then, we go on living with the inevitable distress that comes with hosting undealt-with dilemmas. Whenever truth or reality is painful, we tend to avoid it. But, anyone who is seeking peace and psychological freedom can confront their inner-problems if they’re prepared to put in the time.

This might be just the change we all need to implement in our lifestyle in order to maintain our mental-health in good shape. Remember, psychological well-being results from an ongoing process of dedication to the self. In case feelings of shame or sadness arise along the way. Well, just let them be. They are evidence of your humanity, of the thoughtfulness and compassion that reside within you. They give you reasons for which you should love and respect yourself. And subsequently, gather the strength to cast guilt away.


The name (and some details) of the individuals featuring here have been changed in order to protect their privacy.

Image source: 1, 2, [3] - Created by me on Word,4

Reference List:

1,2 Beck, J. S. (2011), Cognitive Behaviour Therapy – Basics and Beyond, New York – London, The Guilford Press.

Peck, M. S. (1978). The road less travelled: A new psychology of love, traditional values, and spiritual growth, New York, Simon and Schuster.

Gethin, R. (1998) The foundations of Buddhism, Oxford - New York, Oxford University Press.


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Thank you my dear reader. For taking the time to engage in some self-reflection with me :)
I wish you all the best, always.

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Hello, Dear Abigail,

When I saw the title, it hit a note. I do fight feelings of guilt--for offenses committed long ago. What helps me to overcome this is something I learned from a wise person: If I can't forgive myself, how can I forgive others? And so I do :)

I'd love to be like chapper, "Don't take yourself so serious". But I think he's such a nice guy he probably never does anything wrong :))

I love this post for so many reasons, but most of all because you offer tools to deal with the habit of guilt:

Am I judging my self or scrutinising my actions? ✦ Have I learnt from my wrongdoings, or am I simply ruminating in a self-defeating way? ✦ Am I prepared to let my guard down, and take responsibility for the hurt my behaviour has caused? ✦ How has this contributed to my personal growth

A road map to better living, one that is clear and uncomplicated. You really do perform a service with your blogs, Abigail.

Wishing you peace, and good health,

Your friend,

AG

@agmoore2 <3 :)

It's truly pleases me to hear that progress has been made when it comes to self-forgiveness 😊 I'm also very happy that you found those questions useful in terms if addressing feelings of guilt.

Wouldn't be nice to have such a laid-back approach to the self like that of Chapper's! I suppose that in order to develop that sort of mind set we need to rid ourselves of rigid thinking such as: "he's such a nice guy he probably never does anything wrong". What does this imply? That if we do something wrong we are bad? It's difficult to forgive what we deem to be bad.

And while it's important to acknowledge our wrongdoings, it's even more important not to aim at the self while doing so. For, while the latter brings us down, the former drives us to implement improved changes in our way of thinking and behaving :) It's a beautiful, rewarding process!


How have you been my friend? Have you had a good week?

Much love to you from cloudy Portugal! :*

I'm well, thank you, dear Abigail. I hope you are also.

Peace, and may the sun shine always--in your home, if not outside 🌹

Warm regards,
AG

Amazing post as usual. I still have two more posts of yours that I have bookmarked for reading. What I love about your posts is that somehow they always relate to some episode of my life. I guess we have all been stuck into this cycle of guilt at some point. And thanks for bringing it out that guilt can be a strong stressor which can lead to depressive disorder in some cases.

Loved the post. :)

Thank you for stopping by @scienceblocks <3 :) It's always wonderful seeing you around. I am very glad to hear you liked this post and identified the point I tried to convey: guilt as a possible lead to depression. For sure we all have found ourselves trapped within such cycle. So, hopefully, this write-up will deliver some clarifications for those who need a little help with breaking free from it :)

Take care my dear.
Ps: I've seen you posted. I'm very much looking forward to reading your article.

Nice post, as usual. I was actually eagerly waiting for my weekly psychology dose :)

I have always acted differently when doing something wrong or. I actually do not see any need for feeling guilty. Things have been done. Period. They are my responsibility. Period too. Now, from there, instead of feeling this or that or even having to suffer, I think it is better to move on and see how things can be fixed. I am happy to see that this more or less matches the detective way that you proposed.

Hey @lemouth :)

If I had to guess I would have concluded that that is your mode of thinking : moving forward rather than ruminating. For some of us this mode of rationalizing things is more natural than others. Looking at ourselves as well as the world around us with objectivity is a great advantage and an important ingredient for mental well-being.

Thank you very much for your nice words @lemouth. I hope your day improved after the morning train-inconvenience (I've read your post and your comment section earlier this evening and saw you mentioned a not so great start to the day).

Wish you and the family a peaceful night! :D

Sometimes, people however looked at me weirdly, like if I was a totally non-emotive person (I had that earlier this year when I had to move on at work instead of taking the time to be emotionally touched). Whilst I am quite emotive actually, I am first rational :D

Have a nice week-end!

PS: trains in Paris are sometimes random. I got a lot of randomness those days (at least I was able to read a lot ^^)

Have you ever read the works of Eckard Tolle? He discusses similar things. Me for myself always say "Don't think" and "Don't take yourself too serious"! Thanks for the article! Regards Chapper

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Hello there @chappertron :)

Thank you very much for coming around.

I like the don't take yourself too seriously part of your rationale. However, in my opinion, I see thinking as a very good habit to nurture (not of the ruminative kind, though). I greatly believe that quality thinking plays a fundamental role in psychological well-being :)

I have seen Eckard Tolle's books, but never read any of them. The one that's always on display in Fnac (my favourite book shop) is the The Power of Now. You seem to recommend his writings? If so, I might add to my long list of books to read :D

Best,
Abigail

Hey Abigail, I read Tolle's book "A new earth". It has elements of "Power of Now" but steps further of how mankind may shift to a "higher level of consciousness". In this context, he pleads for a clean mind that might prevent anger, pain, hate, and everything which makes the world unhappy and hostile. Thinking in the past and future always brings you away from the moment and is (in Tolle's opinion) an ego reaction which is the root cause of disadvantage developments on earth. It was a recommendation by a friend and I really enjoyed to read it.

Have fun

Chapper

Glad to hear Chapper! In that case this one might even skip the long books-to-read list queue. Thank you for the recommendation :)

Yet another great post - Slow down will ya? lol

.....there are those who’ll attach this notion of badness to the very core of who they are, and inadvertently step into an existence of anxiety, shame and feelings of inferiority.

I was lucky (sarcasm), because I grew up with a family telling me I that I was bad for pointing out facts. My family lived on emotional game playing, and lies, and facts were a bloody nuisance!
I took that to heart, and also had to deal with it.

It took a few years to realize that they were bunch of manipulative twats, and yes - I was better then them. (I mean that in a non ego way, honestly).
I now see myself as lucky, because of the very things I had to think through, and deal with - the guilt of not fitting into my own family expectations, and the shame of not towing the line.
It's one of those 'make you or break you', kinda things.

So going forwards into adulthood - I have zero guilt or shame for my life choices, with one main exception, which I might tel you about some time.
Okay, not 100% zero - but close enough as to make it so.
I do no intentional harm to anyone, and that's all that matters to me.
(minor infringements of the ethos do happen - but they are just that - minor)

I grew up having to sieve through those shitty emotions, and I've made sure not to execute the kind of actions, that lead to those emotions manifesting.

Actions of today that are honest of mind and heart, doesn't allow for the emotions of tomorrow to include guilt or shame.

That's a very touching line @lucylin. The one you concluded your comment with:

Actions of today that are honest of mind and heart, doesn't allow for the emotions of tomorrow to include guilt or shame.

I guess in the end then, for all and each one of us, it comes down to understanding what living mindfully in honesty entails. I guess that's where we get a bit confused. Because of the noise created by families, society and their expectations.

Yours is truly a great achievement. Having the insight that not fitting in with particular requirements doesn't mean that you are not the one in the wrong is liberating, and it doesn't happen for everyone. So, I now have a question for you: How does that sort of breakthrough realization comes about when one is in the midst of emotional chaos?

I also find your self-restraint (I've made sure not to execute the kind of actions, that lead to those emotions manifesting.) something worth praising. It's no wonder you feel psychologically free from the psychological distress you endured, as you seem to have conquered them through engaging in some thorough self-reflection :)

This is an incredible comment. Thank you for taking the time to share it here with us <3 Wishing you guys all the best always!

Having the insight that not fitting in with particular requirements doesn't mean that you are not the one in the wrong is liberating,

....there are scars from the journey, but that's life. (We all have 'em in one way or another).
The cost is high.

But I wouldn't pay a penny less! lol

as you seem to have conquered them through engaging in some thorough self-reflection :)

Nah!
More like partying hard, hedonism, and narcotics - it was nothing that insightful, IMO.
(I never ate a single lentil during my entire 'self reflection' period! lol).
...Ok, a little bit flippant, but you see what I mean?

I already knew myself, somehow -I just needed some external confirmation about me, for a year decade, or three....
Negative family feedback, from as young as I can remember, needs some exhorcizing, I can tell you!!(With the exception of my Dad, of course.)

Have a great weekend!

what a fascinating post! One of the things that i really enjoy reading your posts is that i face these kind of cases each and every day so i either confirm my own thoughts regarding these issues (because previously are just thoughts and conclusions i made without any scientific background) or learn new and better ways to deal with them.

So let's begin because i have as always an example to share regarding Guilt!

  1. I have a very good friend who lately had some rough days due to others. That guy nowadays have 2 close friends me and another one. I have to say at this point that when he was younger he chose many bad people as his friends so in the course of time he lost many of them, either because they left him or because he understood that they are toxic for him.

Now that are other friend he got, i always considered him a little bit of a weird guy both me and my close friends who met him but i can't say much in front of him cause obviously they are very attached and feelings>logic (sadly :p).

One day that guy decided not to answer to messages calls and stuff for about 1 and a half week. You can tell how sad and disappointed my friend was and i started to witness the guilt pattern

He started "i lost so many friends so maybe i am the one at fault" "maybe i do something wrong and he stopped talking to me" "i will lose all of my friends" "am i that bad of a person?" "what i do and keep on losing friends" etc etc. So i told him "shhhh let's use a bit of logic because i know that guy quite well too". If there isn't a health problem that he or his family has then there is no excuse for not giving a 5sec answer via social media in 1.5 week. As adults if you actually did something to him, he could just tell you, "you know what you did this, which i don't like let's talk about it or worst case scenario, i don't want to be friends anymore" He acts with total immaturity and this isn't your fault and you will see, he will answer and tells you something stupid. (At the same time i had seen him playing an online game because i was sure he is that immature :P). At last he talked back to my friend telling a stupid story............

Ha! How well you fitted that instance into the cycle. A lot (a lot) of people succumb to mental agony because of distorted thinking : magnification/overgeneralising ("i will lose all of my friends"), labelling ("am i that bad of a person?").

I like very much how yo approached this instance though: "shhhh let's use a bit of logic because ..." This is precisely the whole premise of cognitive behavioral therapy: applying objectivity and rationalization to our thoughts. And from there, learn that our emotions don't really reflect the reality of things.

Thank you my dearest, for always interacting so meaningfully with my work! <3

Secondary human emotions like shame and guilt tend to be less understood in science then to their primary (or basic) emotion counterparts. This often makes them similarly hard to understand for the general public as well. Shame and guilt are probably among the most misunderstood of all the emotions so they are often used synonymously. I think you did a good job distinguishing between them in your article though. Guilt relates to the individuals behavior, whereas shame relates to the individual's self concept. It seems that there may be some overlap there with regret from the Buddhist perspective. But shame and guilt are so close to one another in concept, and they interact with each other so they can be very confusing for people. Many counselors feel that shame is actually the hardest emotion to work with of all the emotions because it's not the persons behavior that you are working with but their view of themselves. "I hurt a person" (guilt) is easier to rectify then "I'm an awful person" (shame). Behaviors can be rectified in many ways (apology, pentance, even compensation) but self concepts often arent as easily adjusted. I think you did a good job by pointing out that it's best to focus on the actions and behavior that are causing the discomfort rather then the self. that way the individual can move from a place of shame to a place of guilt. Well done!

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So glad you liked how approached this topic @leaky20. You observed once in one of the comments you left me that changing behaviour feels more within our reach than, changing character. I believe that through grasping this concept people feel more in control and empowered. This really pushes us into new directions :)

Thank you for another insightful feedback. I always look forward to what you have to say about the topics I discuss here & it always makes me happy to hear you liked what I've managed to put together to share with the community :)

You guys take care over there!

A very good friend of mine took the guilt on herself after a certain accident happened in her life. It ate her up, made herself feel untrustworthy, insecure and downright depressed. Because of a single event that for many would think, was really not her fault. It took a really long time before I even saw her beautiful person starting to shine again. Guilt is such a complicated thing and it is clear that regardless of what others think a person should feel guilty about, many times its all happening inside of us.

It's a really good point, view it as being a detective instead of a judge. I feel like this is a way a person could solve man troubles throughout life. Regardless of if we call it guilt, shame or sadness.

Oh, so your friends case might have been one that could be fitted under : guilt as a result of cognitive distortion. I am pleased to hear that she managed to overcome her emotional distress. Thank you for sharing this instance with us here @holm. It offers hope for those undergoing a similar situation :)

It is true that that detective work can be applied with many, many other life circumstances. It's tricky to be objective when we're under the effect of uncomfortable emotions. But, it's a habit that when we manage to adopt, it really contributes to one's mental well-being :) More often than not, our despair results from the way we perceive things and not from how things really are. Your latest post, illustrates this very well, by the way. Oftentimes, it's just a matter of how we look at things.

It's always nice to see you around @holm

Have a lovely night!
Best Wishes from Portugal.

I love the balance and compassion you bring to questions like guilt. And I think the detective vs judge role could be helpful in many situations! I'm going to share this idea with both my boys. A good life lesson.

Yep! Good point @geke, the detective role applies to many, many circumstances! I should have added that to the post, shouldn't I? 😅 Ow, so glad to hear you're going to share this work further. It truly made me smile. And with the boys ... <3 I hope they like it :)

Much love to you all from Portugal! :*

I remember saying to my children "It is not you who are bad, but your behavior was bad" or some such.
I love the distinction between regret and guilt. There are things I feel guilty about, and things I regret. But there was one very bad thing I did for which I feel neither, because I did it for revenge. Oh dear. Does that make me bad?
Knowing your self worth is so important, and feeling safe enough to apologize springs from there. Excellent essay. Hopefully I'll get a chance to come back and say some more!

@owasco! How have you been? <3 It feels like ages since I have heard from you, or went around your work. Well, it has been busy around here. Things truly change, time wise, with the end of the summer. Oh well ... :)

I prefer forgiveness over revenge. But, what's been done, has been done. Does that make you bad? Well, there you go, you can apply to yourself the very notion you instilled in your children : what is bad is the action, not you. Even though you claim you don't have any particular regret towards it, I'd put money down you took a lesson from the situation :)

Big hug from Portugal @owasco :*

It's been a whole week! lol
Yes, I do regret that I gave into that temptation, that I sank that low, and I remember feeling much more remorse way back then. But he had it coming! I get a tiny bit of joy knowing that I made my point, and maybe HE learned a lesson. In the end, no real harm was done to either of us. Maybe that's why I can speak so glibly about it today, because this is years later and from here it looks like a drop in a bucket. So guilt that does not diminish with time is a different kind of guilt than the one I am feeling right now.



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that is me I have this problem every time when something goes wrong by me..it is a terrible feeling. I always think that if I have done something bad then everyone judge me onthe basis of that one mistake.really it is a big issue. and lots of people around me have this problem.and you have written an incredible article which clear lots of doubt on me.it is really helpful thank you @abigail-dantes.

It pleases me very much to hear this post has brought some clarification to you. When evaluating yourself remember to take the role of a detective and not of a judge. Distinguishing your self from your actions is also truly important as well as not being intimidated by sadness or shame. We all make mistakes, we all need to solve life's problems and it is through this process that we find meaning and achieve personal-growth :)

Thank you for your comment @nagumanbaloch

Awesome topic you raised here.

Sometimes, some people feel so guilty about their past actions that they even find it hard to forgive themselves.

Over the years, I have understood one thing: No matter how guilty we feel or the regrets we have, we may not be able to change our actions of yesterday. However, we can do something today that can change tomorrow. But not until we've forgiven ourselves, our actions may still be compromised by guilt (my opinion though).

This statement got me

I’d like to quickly mention that there are individuals out there who tend to feel guilty even without having caused any harm to others.

I absolutely agree with you Abbey. Some people also feel guilty because someone else had imposed it on them.

Nice piece as usual Abbey. Much love from Nigeria

It is an important topic to raise isn't it Sammi. You have also written about this in the past. I thought we could start a self-help tag. What do you think?

Yes, I 100% agree with you. It is a matter of understanding that the suffering brought by guilt will not change past actions. And realizing that is only one path to take: that which leads forward.

I am so pleased you liked this post Sammi.
It's bed time here now.

Wish you sweet dreams my dear.
Much love, your sleepy friend :*
Zzzzzzzzzzzzz

I thought we could start a self-help tag. What do you think?

This will be awesome. It'll be an honour. It's a "yes" from me.

Have a blessed day dear Abbey

Nice post. This is a great article we can apply in our lives.

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