Letting Go of Guilt
Before reading this article, I would like you to familiarise yourself with the basic model used in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, called the five-area model, which can be found here: https://www.drstuartpsychologists.com/post/cognitive-behavioural-therapy.
I am writing this on the 29th January, 2021, which I believe is one of the best times of the year to talk about guilt but before we discuss ways of dealing with guilt, we will understand together how it fits within evolution.
Guilt is something that the vast majority of humans feel. There is some suggestion that people who are known as psychopaths, do not experience guilt. They have areas of the brain that are faulty. However, putting that aside, we can see that guilt is an important part of being human. Evolution has favoured guilt as being an emotion that has endured because we are more likely to survive if we live in social groups. If each time we felt annoyed by someone we decided to hit them and felt no sense of guilt about that, we would be ostracised by the group and less likely to survive. Parents can also understand that, at times, children can drive us to distraction and it is better that our guilt and conscience systems, at those times, stop us from chucking them in the bin. So, as we can see, guilt has an important part to play in our survival. There are also ways that guilt can be problematic and stop us from achieving our full potential.
The Five-Area Model
If you are not familiar with the five-area model, here is one for you to look at whist I discuss the different elements:
Okay, firstly, when looking at the five-area model, please look at the circle titled ‘Mood’. This circle represents all of our emotions. There are multiple emotions but some of the main ones are anxiety, depression, surprise and guilt. We do not have a direct access to our emotions and what I mean by this, is that we can not click our fingers and change them. This, I believe, is one of the most unfortunate things about our brains. If only we could click our fingers and stop feeling anxious or click our fingers and feel happy when we are sad. Instead, then, what we have to do to change an emotion is change one of the other systems outlined in the five-area model: ‘Thoughts’, ‘Physical Reactions’, or our ‘Behaviour’.
I am going to turn firstly to physical reactions. This circle on the five-area model represents how our body responds to particular emotions. We all know how our physical body changes when we feel anxious. Our heart beats faster, we may breathe more shallowly, we may feel nausea, or hot, or tingly. With depression, we generally have less energy and feel more lethargic. I have always found it difficult to describe exactly how ‘guilt’ feels in the body but we all know that it does have a very particular physical response. There is an uncomfortableness there and I would say a tension.
Now I will turn to thoughts: when our brains trigger the emotion ‘guilt’ we will begin to think about all of the things that we did wrong. This might then lead on to us thinking about what a bad person we are and how the future is going to be bleak because we are so useless. Well, that line of thinking does not help anyone to bring about change or build confidence, which in my experience as a psychologist is certainly something that holds people back.
Finally, we will turn to the influence of behaviour. When we feel guilt, we are driven to change our behaviour. Now, obviously sometimes this can be positive. If, we decided that our behaviour was not useful to us or to others then if we think though how we would like to act if the same situation were to arise in the future, then this can be positive. However, if we just feel terrible about ourselves and so guilty that it makes us withdraw from relationships, work opportunities, or social situations, then obviously this is not a positive outcome.
Now we understand how guilt influences us, it is useful for us to think about what we can do to reduce the impact it has. Of course, as mentioned above, we need to think firstly about whether we want to repeat the behaviour again. It might be that we shouted at our partners/children/family member/friends. Or we behaved badly at work or at a social event. If we did something that was destructive to our body or to others and we decide that we do not want to behave like that again, then maybe the guilt that we feel can have a positive outcome where we can think about how we would like to act the next time we are faced with the same situation.
However, there are so many times that we feel guilty when guilt does not actually help us to make improvements in our lives and feel better. We just focus on feeling bad and think about how awful we are. There are a multitude of things that individuals I have worked with over the years have felt guilty about and here are a few: not playing with children enough, not being there for family/friends/partners/work enough. Not doing enough exercise. Eating too much or drinking too much alcohol. Working too much and not seeing partners/children/friends/family. Individuals feel guilt when their own mental health impacts on loved ones – shouting when we feel stressed or feeling bad that our anxiety or low mood impacts on others. I know that we can all connect with some of these – I know that I can! Obviously, at this time of year, how many of us have broken our new year’s resolutions?
We need to have a different relationship with guilt. Firstly, when we feel guilt – recognise how it feels in the body. Become familiar with guilt. Recognising that we feel a particular emotion can help us to then watch what happens next.
It is useful for us to spend some time thinking about what we feel guilty about. Is it something that we would like to change? If so, think about what we will do differently next time. We have to remember, though, that we only have so much time in our lives and we can not do everything for everyone else at the expense of having time for ourselves. If we are constantly doing things for others then we will feel stressed and miserable and that is not good for us or for others because
we are more likely to be irritable when feeling stressed.
Or, if we have failed at something that we wanted to do: a new exercise regime, a diet, job applications, meditation, more time for family/friends etc. Then, think about whether we are expecting too much of ourselves. It is better to break down what ever we want to achieve in to small step and carry out step one. When we have achieved this, we can move on to the next step. In that way, we built our confidence in our achievements and won’t be bogged down by failures. Rather than a strict diet, what about trying to eat three sensible meals with two snacks in between and a treat every day? Rather than running a mile, what about increasing exercise every other day, starting with a five minute jog? Rather than applying for multiple jobs, spend 30 minutes each day on an application.
If we feel guilty about the impact that our own mental health has had on others, try to turn the situation around and imagine if that other was the one with the problems. You would probably be happy to be there for them.
The key to all of this is, I believe, being realistic about how much we can give or do and forgiving ourselves when we mess up.