We have all done things that are harmful or hurtful to others. But how we respond emotionally to our misdeeds varies greatly from person to person. One person may feel temporary pangs of guilt that motivate them to rectify the situation. While another person may feel unrelenting shame, inadequacy, and misery for the same wrongdoing. The third article in this guilt series explains why guilt feelings can be stubborn and what to do to shed overactive guilt.
Reason 1: Childhood conditioning
While the gravitas of our actions does influence our emotional reactions, we are more likely to feel excessive guilt if we had experiences that led to guilt in childhood. This is because children tend to internalise the influential critical voices that they hear. Children can become emotionally conditioned to feel guilty in similar situations even if they bare no responsibility. As a result, self-monitoring and self-blaming may become a habit that continues into adulthood.
Reason 2: Shame
If intense guilt feelings go unaddressed, they can develop into shame. When we feel shame, we condemn our selves as well as our actions. As we get older, our inner critic can grow strong, hypervigilant, and tireless, sometimes without us even realising it is there.
To relieve the distress of shame, we may punish ourselves. When we believe that we don’t deserve to be happy, we often sabotage our relationships, our careers, and ourselves. This creates a shame cycle that becomes increasingly hard to break.
Reason 3: Anxiety
Intense and ongoing guilt may be a sign of overactive anxiety. In an attempt to quell anxious feelings, we may become overly concerned with controlling all aspects of our lives. As a result, we may think that we are responsible for everything that happens in our lives. Blaming ourselves may give us that greater sense of control. For example, we may feel guilty that our daughter is having marriage difficulties because we should have seen it coming or that our strained relationship with a parent caused his/her bad health.
In its extreme form, hyper-responsibility is an indication of OCD, often resulting in compulsive rituals to stop bad things from happening. In less severe instances, hyper-responsibility can result in a free-floating guilt through which all of our experiences are filtered. We may recognise that we are not actually responsible but we feel guilty nonetheless.
Reason 4: Depression
Depression dampens our ability to reason and our perception of ourselves. When we are depressed, we are more likely to feel inferior, unworthy and incapable. Depression also alters our ability to problem solve. Which is why we blame ourselves when things go wrong. Our proneness towards negative thinking means that any feelings of regret or remorse are magnified. We may feel guilty that we are a burden, that we are letting others down, or that we are not able to just ‘snap out of it.’
A Chicken or Egg Scenario
It may difficult for us to pinpoint whether our depression or anxiety is causing us to feel excessive guilt or vise versa. Both anxiety and depression can result in a heightened sense of culpability. But unresolved guilt can also lead to anxiety and depression. For example, research suggests that guilt not only makes us feel bad, it also prevents us from feeling good. We no longer permit ourselves to enjoy things and often feel guilty at the thought of having fun. Furthermore, excessive guilt can be exhausting. It can drain our energy so much that we become stuck, unable to concentrate, or move forward.
Knowing whether the anxiety, depression, or guilt feelings came first is not so important. What’s most important is that we recognise when our guilt feelings are no longer serving a function (such as motivating us to repair a fractured relationship). Such recognition signals us that its time to take steps to address our excessive guilt feelings.
What to do About Excessive Guilt
Focus on improving your mood.
If you notice that your guilt feelings are intensifying, focus on your health. Improving your diet, lowering your alcohol-intake, and getting enough sleep can stabalise your mood and lower the likelihood of excessive blaming.
Move your body. Even a small amount of exercise can improve mood. Though low mood can make exercise seem unfeasible, distraction can help. Try listening to an audiobook or podcast while walking outside or watch a favourite series on your smartphone while walking on a treadmill.
Learn to relax. We can train our bodies to relax using imagery-focused and muscle-focused relaxation strategies, breathing exercises, and breath-focused meditation. Try to practice relaxation daily: three to four times a day (even five minutes while walking or traveling to work) can reduce heart rate and muscle tension.
Stayed connected to friends and family. Excessive guilt and shame can make us want to hide from everyone. As a result, we may become isolated from our loved ones when we need their support the most. Articulating your feelings to a supportive other helps us to gain clarity and to diffuse overactive guilt feelings.
Show self-compassion. Recognise that shame, depression, and anxiety can negatively skew your perceptions. Practice giving yourself the support that you would give to a friend.
Seek therapy. When guilt feelings are stubborn, outside help may be needed to address them. Psychotherapy helps you discover the underlying reasons and triggers for your excessive guilt. It challenges unrealistic beliefs such as, ‘I must be kind and patient at all times,’ and guides you in replacing them with healthier, more realistic alternatives.
Psychotherapy teaches you how to be self-compassionate and helps to put culpability into perspective. Therapy also can help you accept that the past trauma or abuse was not your fault, finally releasing long-held self-blame and the negative impact that it has on your life. Instead of falling back into the habit of self-blaming, psychotherapy can give you coping strategies to bounce back when difficulties arise.