As women, guilt seems to run our lives. If there is one issue that every woman in my practice seems to struggle with, it is guilt. There are two kinds of guilt: One is rational guilt—you feel guilty because you hurt someone’s feelings or yelled at your children or forgot an appointment at the doctor’s office. Guilt is the message from our conscience that tell us we’ve done something wrong and need to take ownership for our mistake, apologize, or at least try hard not to do that thing again. That is what I call “rational” or “appropriate” guilt.
The other type of guilt is what I call “irrational” or “inappropriate” guilt. This is guilt that does not have a realistic basis. For example, let’s say you do turn down an invitation from a neighbor to a neighborhood party. You haven’t done something to hurt someone, but they disappointed and when they show their displeasure, you feel guilty. Women have been trained to feel responsible for everything, especially for other people’s happiness. We have been taught to feel responsible for everything that goes wrong in our families or in our households. We feel guilty and responsible for other peoples’ misfortunes, even if their misfortunes have nothing to do with us. This is inappropriate guilt and probably accounts for 80%-90% of all the guilt we feel.
What I try to do is help women sort through and determine which feelings of guilt are actually appropriate guilt and which are irrational or inappropriate guilt. When we feel appropriate guilt, there is something we need to do about the situation: apologize or perhaps just change our behavior. When we identify that we are having inappropriate guilt, we need to not do something about it. We need to disentangle the feeling reaction from the facts of the situation and re-train our emotions to discontinue the automatic reaction of guilt.
If you find that guilt runs your life and a lot of your decisions are based on guilt, this is a problem. It is important to give some thought to the things that make you feel guilty. What are the biggest triggers for your automatic guilt response? How many of your reactions are just old habits from years of being made to feel responsible for everyone’s well-being and happiness? As you identify these inappropriate guilt responses, work on noticing them when they arise and label them for what they are: “This is appropriate guilt” or “This is inappropriate guilt.”
It’s difficult to do, but once you recognize that some guilt feelings are irrational, you can begin to avoid falling into the guilt trap. It takes practice to go against your long-standing tendencies to respond to everything by apologizing and thinking it’s your fault. But with practice you can definitely move toward freedom from irrational guilt and your life will be happier because of it.