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. I see there being two kinds of guilt: One is rational guilt—you feel guilty because you hurt someone’s feelings, or yelled at your children. You owe them an apology and guilt is the message from our conscience that tells us we’ve done something wrong and need to make amends, or at least not 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. You haven’t done something to hurt someone, but they are displeased with you 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 trained 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 comprises 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 future 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-tool our emotions to discontinue the automatic reaction of guilt.
Questions to ponder:
• To what extent does guilt run your life and your decisions?
• Have you made progress in rooting out and dismantling irrational and inappropriate guilt responses?
• What are the biggest triggers for your automatic guilt response?
• If you do have realistic, appropriate guilt about something, what do you do to make the situation right?