The Village Family Service Center

Welcome to the 'Guilts' – Here's How to Learn From It and Let Go

Date: 
Friday, September 29, 2017
A sad-looking woman leans her head against a window, which reflects her image.

By Joyce Eisenbraun
Village EAP Trainer

Ever feel like you’re not enough? Not doing enough, not saying the right things, not keeping in touch the way you envision, not living up to the perfection your friends or family seem to effortlessly display?

Welcome to the “guilts.”

Too often, our expectations are higher than our reality can possibly fulfill, and we create a personal environment that seems filled with failure. Our focus becomes what we’ve not done or said, rather than what we’ve accomplished. Individuals can find it difficult to look past the “guilts” and deal with the situation in healthy ways.

Dr. John Grohol, Psy.D., offered some thoughtful suggestions for dealing with guilt that threatens to overpower our lives. Rather than perceiving guilt only as a negative, he notes that it can be a healthy indicator in our lives, letting us know when we’ve done something wrong, crossed a line, been hurtful, or behaved in ways that are less than stellar. True guilt can be helpful to give us insight on our behavior, so we can make changes.

So where do we start?

Grohol suggests taking the time to recognize the kind of guilt we’re experiencing: Is it real or false guilt? Real guilt often means our behavior has been offensive or hurtful in some way. When I am working 70 hours a week and depriving my family of my time, I feel guilty. When I’ve said something offensive to someone else, hurting their feelings, I feel guilty. In both cases, the guilt is appropriate. It’s my “warning signal” that I need to change my behavior.

When can guilt be inappropriate? Many little things can make us feel guilty: ignoring a volunteer need when you had the time, or even the tearful pleas from your child to not leave on the first day of school. You feel terrible, but are you doing something wrong? No. Life happens, and it’s not perfect, so identifying the false guilt will help eliminate it from your emotional closet.

Once guilt has been identified as appropriate, take action. Grohol suggests that rather than avoiding the situation, or trying to live with the guilt, take action to fix the problem or change the behavior. This alleviates the issue, and opens the door to renewed relationships. An apology, changing work schedules to more reasonable hours, and taking time to repair a relationship are just a few examples of affirmative action for legitimate guilt that allow relationships to be renewed and restored.

Learn from the mistakes, Grohol suggests. Just as guilt can be a healthy reminder to fix our behavior, take the opportunity to learn from it so you’re less likely to repeat the negative behavior again.

Don’t let guilt about the past mistakes linger. Move on. Once you’ve done your best to apologize or change behavior, let it go. The more we focus on the past, the less energy and focus we’re able to give to the future.

We can also learn from false guilt, by paying attention to what triggers those emotions. For example, if going on Facebook makes you feel guilty about not living up to other people’s perfect posts, it may be healthy to limit your time on the site.

A good reminder: perfection doesn’t exist in any of our friends, family, or in us. The key is to realize and accept that we’re human, Grohol says. He advises not to engage in self-blame or battering your self-esteem “because you should’ve known, should’ve acted differently, or should’ve been an ideal person. You’re not, and neither am I. That’s just life.”

Time to reflect

So the next time the “guilts” sweep in to weigh you down, take a moment to reflect. Is there something in your behavior that needs adjustment? Do you need to make an apology or change future actions? Recognize the source and take appropriate action.

As you reflect, is the guilt an emotional, irrational response to something in your environment? Figure out what the trigger is, and learn how you can reduce your exposure to the “guilts.”

The answer to those questions will be your first step to helping you better cope with future situations, and a healthy way to keep your focus a positive one.