What is Guilt Telling Us?

By Sam Hardwig - 08/10/2020


What is guilt?

Guilt is defined as a common feeling of emotional distress that signals us when our actions or inactions have caused or might cause harm to another person. Guilt may be a common feeling but due to the discomfort, our first impulse may be to quickly get rid of guilt rather than hold a space for it.  What’s important to know, is that awareness of guilt connects us to our values, ethics, morality, and helps us to live in congruence with who we really are. If we can make friends with our guilt, we will have the opportunity to work through the discomfort and foster deeper connections within ourselves and our relationships.

How do we recognize justified guilt?

When we act against our values, we hurt ourselves and often hurt other people. Take for example, a person who has lied, cheated, or broken commitments in relationships. Here, the feeling of guilt is justified. The awareness of guilt is a signal to pause, breathe, and clarify what was done and how to address the harm. It is this opportunity to be accountable that often gets missed in an effort to instead feel comfortable. In some instances, people may feel guilt from their honest mistakes, but when choices are made to hurt others, effortful action is often needed to provide healing and to regain trust. For instance, an individual may put energy into apology, sharing openly how trust was broken, and making a plan to avoid future intimacy-blocking behaviors. Through this work, a person can reinforce self-worth and self-compassion. With the courage to show up in this genuine way, self-forgiveness is also possible. To the degree guilt feels uncomfortable may be to the degree that repair work is needed to reach this stage. Of course, if there has been long term relationship damage healing won’t happen overnight, but going all the way in the process lets us keep our dignity.

What is unjustified guilt all about?

Unjustified guilt does not occur when we go against our moral compass (this is justified), but when our childhood beliefs tell us we are not who we should be in the world and that people won’t be able to meet our emotional needs. Negative messages such as these were born in the past, and in our mindful awareness, it’s crucial to know, we would not endorse them. Take for example a person who feels guilty when others are upset, has trouble saying No, or has perfectionistic tendencies. In mindful awareness, he/she may notice that the guilt is not coming from a value violation but instead is as a result of feeling imperfect or at fault for the unhappiness of others.  If we’ve grown up basing our worth on rigid standards and seeking truth outside of ourselves, experiences such as these can block intimacy and cause us to lose significant portions of our life stuck in evaluation and judgement. When we can notice and understand the difference between justified and unjustified guilt, we allow ourselves to participate in relationships with greater confidence and curiosity. We can recognize our inner critic instead of fusing with its negative messaging. In these moments, we may choose to let our guard down and anticipate acceptance from people versus expecting the worst. In this space, deeper and more effective relationships are possible. We can assert boundaries, ask for what we want, listen without judgement, or validate the experiences of others without making it about us. More and more, we can feel the humble appreciation that comes from taking responsibility for our own well-being.

Ways to deal with justified guilt

  • Embrace humility. Be accountable to people you have hurt and others who may have been impacted. This will help you maintain long-term relationships and avoid isolation.
  • If you have wronged someone, make amends. Avoid sinking into self-pity and giving away your self-control. Forgiveness is possible and part of this process.

Ways to deal with unjustified guilt

  • Commit to a daily mindfulness practice, develop an assertive and respectful voice, and nurture self-love and compassion.
  • Accept that your good enough is good enough!  Perfectionism can take a back seat when we are able to accept and embrace our strengths and limitations.
  • Release judgement, have a positive approach to conflict resolution, and anticipate acceptance in relationships without limiting its form.

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