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The effects of guilt

We all make mistakes in our past, in our present, and will continue to do so in our future. It is this imperfection that not only reveals, but celebrates our humanity. Being fallible is a trait we all share and no one is above it. One could decide on varying degrees of mistakes and certain laws prove this to be true. Most people want to do the right thing and when they make a mistake they aren’t exceptionally happy about it. How we deal with the mistake long term is what really influences our lives.

Guilt is an emotion that comes from believing that you were responsible for a particular mistake (usually the violation of some moral code) whether or not your assessment was accurate or not. Often times guilt, and the degree of which we experience, is based on who was affected by the mistake and how severely we deem them to be affected.

Guilt is a member of what psychology calls the “self-critical” emotional family. This group also includes shame, embarrassment, remorse, and regret. It is effectively an inner conflict between what you believe to be right and what you actually did, or didn’t do. Guilt isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when allowed to exist in a healthy state.

Many of us aren’t too sure of how to deal with guilt. Because shame is frequently associated with guilt, we tend to avoid anything that exposes these emotions. If you are a person who is quite empathetic, you will most likely experience guilt more than someone who has a lesser degree of empathy. This is not to say that this is a bad thing, it just indicates your need to be exceptionally diligent about managing and responding to the feeling of guilt.

One of the most common things I see happening with many of my clients is that they associate the feelings of guilt with their sense of identity and self-worth. This approach is actually opposite to what guilt says about someone. If you are feeling guilt, then you recognize that you have some standard by which you measure appropriate behavior. A lack of guilt is psychopathic behavior.

Where most of us drop the ball is when we allow guilt to continue as a way to self berate. Being a member of the “self-critical” family, we tend to criticize ourselves quite harshly as a response to our guilt. This is a very destructive approach to managing guilt and, when left unchecked, will color and flavor how we do life in general.

It is important to recognize why this internal conflict between behavior and beliefs/standards exists. Acknowledge that your behavior was not up to the standard you believe to be appropriate and understand that it is your humanity that allows you to make these mistakes. It is not a question of self worth or identity. Locating the things that led to your lapse in judgment and devising a plan to make sure that you are prepared to deal with those triggers is a very healthy approach to responding to guilt.

Ongoing remorse and self berating isn’t necessary to show you’re sorry for having made a mistake. Acknowledging your mistake, apologizing where appropriate and devising a strategy to try and not repeat that act is a very healthy way to respond to guilt.

Guilt can cause us to do foolish things and creates stress in our lives. It can have a negative effect on our health, our emotional state, and how we view ourselves. Your future will be governed by how well you manage guilt.

Don’t let guilt sabotage your happiness or your future. We all make mistakes and that’s perfectly acceptable. Your response to your mistakes is what is more important than making (or not making) the mistake in the first place. Lighten up a bit and don’t let others manipulate you into carrying guilt over a past mistake. Life is short, so manage it well!

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