Feeling Guilty? Why Guilt Lingers and What To Do About It

feeling guilty

Type ‘Guilt is a’ into Google search and ‘useless emotion’ are the first words that pop up in the autocomplete list. Click on the phrase and the search page generates a list, including articles Why Guilt is a Useless Emotion and Guilt is a Wasted Emotion; and even a book titled, Guilt is a Useless Emotion.

One such article states, if you shouldn’t be doing something, then focus on not doing it, and don’t feel guilty. But, as anyone who has tried to just stop feeling an emotion (like anger or apprehension) can tell you, emotions are stubborn.

Neuropsychologist Joseph LeDoux explains the reason we can’t just stop feeling an emotion is because emotions are what keep us alive and healthy. After 30 years of emotion research, LeDoux deduced that all emotions have motivational purposes. They are neurological ‘calls to action’ towards ensuring our safety, adequate resources, and connection with others.

What is the Purpose of Feeling Guilty?

Human beings are social creatures and need interaction to survive. For our ancestors, being cast out of the tribe meant certain death. So guilt has evolved to alert us when we act in ways that could result in rejection from our community or close relationships.

Guilt is not only relational, it also alerts us when we cheat on our diets, spend too much money, or skip the gym. LeDoux suggests whenever we act against our best interests, our brains release stress hormones that motivate us to adjust our damaging behaviour and usually dissipate shortly after we do so.

Such guilt feelings are common, healthy, and useful. However, when guilt lingers – and it often does – it can suck our energy, cause us further distress and lead to more serious psychological issues like depression and anxiety.

Our brains may be prompting us to rectify a situation or apologise for our wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. Sometimes, these actions are not possible. In which case, we need to forgive ourselves in order to stay healthy. Or we are feeling guilty for no specific reason. We have a free-floating guilt through which all our experiences are filtered.

This series of three articles addresses what to do about each of these scenarios. The first in the series is about apologising effectively.

How to Apologise Effectively

We are human. And no matter how hard we try, prepare, or concentrate on doing things right, mistakes are inevitable. Gigantic, messy, completely-our-fault mistakes that are very often pointed out to us by others.

As children, we were taught to say “I’m sorry” when we caused harm to others, but sometimes “I’m sorry” is not enough. When others are hesitant or unwilling to forgive us, it is often because they don’t believe that we are sincerely repentant.

Psychologist and author Guy Winch studied how we apologise and found that the most effective apologies – the ones that convey your remorse, prompt forgiveness, and repair relationships – include these steps.

Include these three statements. Although these statements might be implied, for example, “I am sorry” implies “I regret it,” research suggests that implications are not always enough. All three statements need to be verbalised, sincere, and explicit in order to work.

1. Statement of regret. I regret what I did.

2. A clear statement of apology. I am so sorry.

3. Request for forgiveness. Please forgive me.

Validate the other’s hurt feelings. Emotional validation may seem counter-intuitive – because we don’t want to highlight their pain – but research suggests that when others feel understood, it actually diffuses their distress. In order for emotional validation to work, it needs to be accurate. Here are steps we can take to ensure accuracy:

1. Let the other complete their version of events without interruption, even if their version is clearly skewed.

2. Convey understanding of the situation from their perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.

3. Convey understanding of how they felt (again from their perspective) as a result of your actions.

4. Acknowledge that their feelings are reasonable (remember, from their perspective, they are).

5. Convey empathy and remorse towards their emotional state.

Take responsibility for hurting them. I am sorry that I hurt you. We often fall into the Sorry, Not Sorry trap when we want to apologise but don’t want to accept any responsibility for their emotional state. Statements like, I didn’t mean for you to get hurt or I am sorry that you’re angry, display insincerity and often backfire when we try to use them.

Offer compensation or atonement. By offering to make it up to them, we acknowledge that we injured the relationship and we want to take tangible steps to repair it. I am sorry that I made you wait so long, perhaps I can take you for lunch. Or, how can I make it better?

Acknowledge that you have violated expectations, rules, or social norms and reassure them that you won’t to do it again. Whenever possible, convey specific measures. I am so sorry that I forgot your birthday. I am so forgetful, but I have a reminder in for our anniversary.  

Sometimes there is no way to apologise. We may have no way of making up for the wrongdoing (in instances of Survivor guilt, for example) or our attempts at reparation may have failed. When we are unable to receive forgiveness, guilt can eat away at us. If we don’t want unresolved guilt to lead to more severe psychological issues, we need to let it go.

The next article will explain how. In the meantime, find out how to make the most of your good deeds – and when to draw the line.

 Prime Women magazine