Many of us live our lives feeling guilty. We feel guilty if we hold up the grocery line. We feel guilty if we don’t fund raise for the school. We feel guilty if we don’t eat the chocolate cake our sister made, (even though we are on a diet). And most of all, we feel guilty if we have to say “No” to anyone. As a result, we always put other people’s needs before our own, and we can’t do anything that might possibly hurt someone else’s feelings.
Constantly feeling guilty is not only exhausting, it can also lead to anxiety.
There are times guilt is appropriate. This guilt is caused by doing things that are wrong, immoral, illegal or unethical. In these cases, guilt can motivate us to live according to the values we believe in. For example, if we steal from someone, lie, cheat on our partner, and so on. In these types of cases we SHOULD feel guilty.
It is the other kind of guilt I am talking about in this article. For clarity I am going to call it False guilt.
False guilt occurs when we feel guilty for something that is, in no way wrong, unethical, illegal, or immoral. Such as the examples at the beginning of this article; holding up the check-out line, saying “no” to someone etc.
So why do we feel false guilt? Let’s start by realizing that we are not born with these guilty feelings. These types of feelings have been learnt. There are many reasons we may have developed this pattern of feeling, such as, receiving messages of unworthiness or un-importance as a child. Or having a parent who always felt guilty. Which has led us to believe it is a normal way of thinking and feeling.
But whatever the reason is for developing this pattern of feeling false guilt, we can help ourselves to overcome it, by starting to working on our thoughts. Step one is to check that it is actually false guilt not appropriate guilt, by asking ourselves if we have done something wrong, immoral or illegal (lie, cheat steal etc). If not, then it is definitely a case of false guilt.
Our thoughts always create our feelings. So, our next step is to identify what the thought is, that is making us feel guilty. We can then examine that thought to see if it is actually true and based on fact, or just a story we have made up in our minds.
For example, my friend invites me out for lunch. I am busy so I turn her invitation down, but then feel guilty because I think she might be hurt or offended.
When I examine that thought, I realize there is no evidence that my friend is hurt or offended. For a start, I said no without being rude (Sorry, I can’t today, but let me know if you are free tomorrow.) And even if she chooses to be offended, we are not responsible for managing other people’s thoughts, feelings or actions. That is their journey. We are only responsible for what we do, think and feel.
All of this means, that my original thought and reason for feeling guilty was just a story I had made up in my head. It was not based on fact.
There is no up-side to feeling false guilt. It has no value. By working with our thoughts and being compassionate with ourselves (while still loving those around us), we can learn to make our own needs and well-being important. And by doing this we will reduce our levels of guilt and anxiety.
Written by Lynda Timperley Btch, Dip Psych, Cert Life Coaching.
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