Why this matters
We experience guilt when we believe we’ve done something wrong or bad. We can also feel guilty when we haven’t done something we think we should have. Guilt lingers when we dwell on thoughts of what we should or shouldn’t have done. Sometimes if you acted in a way you shouldn’t have guilt is a natural and helpful response that motivates you to try to apologize or repair the damage.
There are other times when guilt doesn’t serve a useful purpose such as when it keeps us from taking effective action. We may dwell on guilty thoughts well beyond what might help us seek a solution to their cause. It can cripple us physically, destroying our motivation to do anything other than think about our guilt. Lethargy or fatigue can set in.
Guilt often involves negative, self-judgmental thoughts, like “I should have,” or “I shouldn’t have.” These thoughts cause us to see ourselves as bad, irresponsible, undeserving or selfish.
Guilt can have mental and physical manifestations like sadness or anxiety. It might be felt in the gut – like “pangs” of guilt, or lead to increased heart rate, rapid breathing or dryness in the throat.
When we feel guilty, our natural response is to do something to offset the feeling – to right the wrong. This might mean saying something to justify the actions that caused our guilt. For example, we might explain to others why we did or didn’t do something, hoping to convince ourselves and others we weren’t wrong. When we verbally justify our actions in this way, we can come across as “being defensive.”
Guilty actions can also involve doing something to lessen the impact of what we think was wrong. For example, if something we said upset a person, we may do nice things for them to “make up for it.”
Finally, like other anxiety-related feelings, guilt can naturally lead to avoidance. Someone who feels guilty about a past event may try to change the subject when someone brings it up in conversation.
Explore and reflect
The examples below show situations that provoke feelings of guilt and related anxiety. Notice how these types of guilt-provoking thoughts can make us feel uncomfortable and push us to try to rid ourselves of the feeling. Also note how our actions are different when our thoughts are different.
A manager keeps his job but some of his employees are laid off due to restructuring.
“I shouldn’t be here. I don’t deserve to be here more than the others.”
Agonize over the impact on those let go. Engage in repetitive thoughts of anger at the organization and feelings of guilt at retaining their job.
“It’s normal for me to feel badly for the employees and it shows I care but I deserve my job and have worked hard for it. Feeling guilty won’t change the situation.”
A person is respectfully giving negative feedback to a friend. The friend begins to cry.
“I’m such a jerk. I should have been more sensitive. I’m a bad person.”
- Desperately try to comfort the friend.
- Take back the criticisms and apologize profusely.
- Vow to never again provide negative feedback to this friend no matter how critical it may be.
“I had to provide the feedback, and not giving it won’t serve anyone well. I did the best I could to be respectful and understanding as I delivered the message.”
A friend is helping another shingle their roof. The homeowner sees the friend struggling. They know it’s because they didn’t take time to demonstrate the proper way to do the job. The friend is usually good at everything.
“I’m irresponsible. I shouldn’t have assumed they’d know how to do this when they offered to help.”
Avoid looking at the friend – they’re safe, just not very skilled – and it was so generous of them to take time to help. Try to make it up to them by lowering expectations about their work.
“I have to get this done before it rains and I can’t do it myself. The best I can do is apologize for not taking the time to show them properly before and take the time now to show them the better way to attach the shingles.”
A group project gets delayed because the person leading the group can’t get some team members to complete their contribution by the deadline.
“I failed everybody. I dropped the ball. I’m a lousy leader.”
Do the work for others even though it may damage their relationships and well-being.
“The project’s huge and there’s only so much I can realistically get done myself. I’ll pull the team together to discuss options.”
A volunteer co-ordinator asked one of their volunteers to work on a different task because they seemed to be struggling with what they’d originally been assigned. The volunteer seems devastated.
“I’m such a jerk. They don’t deserve to be treated this way. I really should be more understanding.”
- Be lenient on the expectations.
- Let the volunteer go unsupervised again to avoid hurting their feelings.
- Be extra friendly to all volunteers to highlight your kind and humane side.
“I know from experience that performance would get worse if I didn’t take early steps to rectify this. I will offer retraining on the original task if they’re interested.”
It’s important to remember guilt may not be rational. Sometimes we’re at fault, but sometimes our internal judge makes us feel guilty.
Next time, you may want to check in with yourself by asking, “Have I really been selfish, or is this just part of being in a relationship?” If the answer is “yes,” a good strategy may be to act on it, like apologizing or offering to do something for the person you’ve wronged.
However, if the answer is “no,” you need to be careful not to act against your interests. For example, you don’t want to take on tasks you don’t have time for simply out of guilt. It’s helpful to notice guilt when you feel it and pause to ensure you act rationally rather than simply following your initial feelings.