Read here how you can overcome the struggle.
Feelings of guilt can make your life miserable. Like a heavy burden they weigh on us and destroy all positive feelings. Even when you know you haven’t done anything wrong, yet still you feel guilty about it. What causes these “erroneous” feelings of guilt?
And above all what can you do against them?
How do feelings of guilt develop?
Feelings of guilt primarily develop when someone violates the values or norms of a community which he belongs to. In so far guilty feelings also have an important function for society, since they convey what you are allowed to do and where the boundaries are, so that you won’t be excluded from a community.
Norms are especially effective when people have internalized them and stick to them even when no one is controlling them. Someone who will stop at a red light at 3.00 a.m. at a deserted junction knows what I’m talking about. Feelings of regret, anguish, remorse or a guilty conscience are indicators for us that support us in knowing what we shouldn’t do.
Well, now there aren’t only social norms but also personal values. What can play a role e.g. is how often you see your friends or visit your parents. But also how accurately your apartment needs to
be tidied up or whether you comply with the request to candidate for becoming the next town council also reflects upon your personal values.
The development of a moral conscience probably begins during childhood. Or is “good“ behavior natural? Watch this video with 9(!) months-old babies:
By the way: monkeys too have a sense of fairness. And they can totally flip out when they’re fed unequal portions as this renowned study shows.
Norms are communicated by the particular communities respectively their „representatives“, in this case it’s the parents. Religion makes up a big part of it. If you are brought up with the image of a punitive god (“God sees it when you pick your nose while you’re in the bathroom”) chances are good that you will be overly well-behaved and diligent as a grown-up.
Years ago the psychoanalyst Tilman Moser wrote a book called „Godpoisening“ in which he describes his own religious upbringing and how long it took him to disburden himself from it.
What are erroneous feelings of guilt?
Guilty feelings are appropriate when someone did something that contradicts the relative valid norms. These norms are not universal but depend on the culture that lives by them. In some cultures honor killing is almost an obligation whereas in the USA or Germany murder is avenged.
We can often observe a lack of appropriate feelings of guilt. These people are usually referred to as narcissist, egotists or we call them unscrupulous or uninhibited.
We’re talking about erroneous – thus inappropriate – feelings of guilt when someone is not culpably involved in a situation looked at from a rational point of view. Unfortunately, this insight doesn’t help the person. The assumed “guilt“ is so internalized that it needs to be “worked off“.
Here’s how you can recognize erroneous feelings of guilt:
- Endless pondering
over how you could have avoided something although your intellect is aware that it wasn’t in your hands. Early messages delivered by your parents can play a negative role.
For some people it was typical when their mother said: „When you were born it was the end of my professional career.” Or they believed that their bad grades were the reason for the parental fights that ended in divorce.
- Strict norms
Many perfectionists feel immoderately guilty, if they’ve made a mistake. They try to avoid that by excessive controlling.
- Many self-reproaches
“How typical for me“ is the mantra of the overly diligent, when a minor mishap happens to them. Where one person slurs over it by saying to him- or herself „Don’t cry over spilled milk“ another person may be obsessed with self-reproaches, digging up examples from the past where he or she had acted just as “irresponsibly”, „sloppily” or “lazily”.
- Pointless compulsive acts
Someone who has to check whether he or she turned off the stove ten times or has to wash his hands every half hour knows, that his problem is not forgetfulness or a lack of cleanliness.
It’s a kind of magic thinking by which that person feels better about him- or herself for a short period of time. Or in other words would feel a lot worse, if he didn’t attend to the compulsive action. Superstitious rituals like some athletes and non-athletes carry out also belong to this category, but they’re not nearly as agonizing.
Clearly erroneous, inappropriate feelings of guilt don’t only weigh on you and trouble your momentary mood or a longer period of time, but maybe your entire life. Many people who are either depressive, enthusiastic idealists or overly adapted – these people martyr themselves with such thoughts and are rarely open to alternative interpretations.
Why do people do things like that?
Gathering from a great deal of experience with clients over the years I have found four reasons:
- Suppressed aggression is what often lies beneath guilty feelings.
If you don’t dare to express your – perhaps legitimate – anger at someone, then you may end up directing these aggressions towards yourself.
Because wrath that is not expressed does not just disappear into thin air. It searches for a valve. Sometimes it expresses itself through psychosomatic disorders. Or in self-accusations and discriminating oneself.
What goes hand in hand with this is being identified with the aggressor. If someone is forcefully restrained by someone, we come across the phenomenon that the victim shows its solidarity with the perpetrator and totally idealizes him or her (Stockholm-Syndrome). This also happens often when force is used, for example when sexual abuse takes place.
- Self-punishment relieves feelings of guilt.
In many religions the combination of guilt and painful expiation plays an important role. A mild form of self-punishment is repeatedly praying the rosary. The clearest example of the function of self-inflicted pain is shown by the flagellants. That this is no religious delusion but has a relieving effect is demonstrated by this interesting study.
- Erroneous feelings of guilt are a kind of equalization.
What power unconscious conflicts of loyalty can have is something I’ve written about in this article. In my office and my personality seminars this dynamic can often be found:
– A talented IT developer unconsciously sabotages his professional career because he doesn’t want to outreach his father who went bankrupt twice.
– An exam candidate develops acute and incomprehensible exam nerves. It turns out she’s afraid that if she makes the exam, then she would have to “leave” her mother who lives on her own.
- Erroneous feelings of guilt feed illusions of control.
Children already discover the power of magic thinking when they’re in situations in which they feel helpless or dependent: “If I don’t step on any cracks on the boardwalk when I walk home from school, then I won’t get an F in my test.“
Erroneous feelings of guilt can be understood as a kind of magic thinking. If someone sacrifices himself at the office because he believes that if he doesn’t then everything will cave in, he too has carpentered his own personal myth of irreplaceability.
What can be done against such erroneous feelings of guilt?
You can find out about your own inner conflicts and entanglements by searching for a quiet place where you are sure to be undisturbed for a while. Sit down, close your eyes and concentrate on your insides (or read my article about awareness beforehand).
And then – as an experiment – you say one or more of these sentences out loud:
- “It was not my fault.”
- “I had no other choice.”
- “I have the permission to live differently than or be different from my father/my mother.“
- “I have the permission to show my anger.”
- “I’ve suffered long enough.”
- “I deserve something better.”
- “It’s perfectly alright to say ‚no‘.“
Your reactions can be quite intense. Which is a good sign, because then you know that you’re about to unmask an important inner conflict. Share your experiences with someone you trust. Or write them down.
Or wash your hands. Seriously. A study shows that washing your hands can cleanse a guilty conscience.
And if now you find yourself a bit confused whether your feelings of guilt are “correct“ or “inappropriate“ then maybe you’re experiencing something similar to the monk in this ZEN story:
He was a passionate chess player who, once he started to search for his liberation, believed he had failed when he had lost a game. After he had spent two years as an apprentice with a rabbi, he figured he failed when he had won a game.
After that he became the student of a wise man from the Sufis who made him believe, that when he had lost a game and felt good about it, that that was failure. Still not content he went to the Himalaya and learned from a great Yogi that if he had won, but felt guilty about the victory, that that was failure.
At last he met a master of Zen. And what happened within a few weeks?
He finally learned how to strategically make better use of the pawns!
Photo: (CC) Flickr.com, privately