By Sebhat Ayele MCCJ
The last emotional discomfort that Leadership published was on Anger and in this issue we present to you “Guilt”. As it has been underlined in the previous topics of emotional management, human folk create many of their own emotions by their thoughts, and can — more or less — decide how they want to feel. That is tantamount to ease all negative feelings, including guilt.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes—accurately or not that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a universal moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation. It is closely related to the concept of remorse. Feelings of guilt arise from betraying your own rules for ethical or religious behavior. As a psychological phenomenon, guilt can be frustratingly thorny. For if you’re afflicted with a deep rooted consciousness, one that feels compelled to come after you for the slightest perceived infraction, you’ll be haunted by such feelings even when you haven’t done anything that would generally be regarded as culpable. Therapist, see many people who are guilty over illicit thoughts or impulses that, for sure all can have, at one time or another. As underlined in the previous topics, it’s therefore essential to determine when feelings of guilt are rationally based and when they’re more or less arbitrary not grounded in fact and so needlessly self-punishing. Obviously, if you’ve caused an innocent person harm, or failed to help someone in crisis when it would have been easy enough to do so, it would be abnormal not to experience a feeling of remorse. In such instances, one almost has to be anomalous if the conscience didn’t bother him/her.
Symptoms of Guilt
Psychotherapists have talked about the importance of distinguishing between rational guilt and irrational guilt that’s inordinately self-critical—and largely gratuitous. Such unjustified guilt has been linked to needless emotional suffering and self-loathing (at times, sufficiently merciless and relentless to propel a person toward suicide). And if it lasts long enough, this internal agonizing can generate dangerous behaviors such as anxiety- or shame-based problems, substance abuse, sexual disorders, and an enormous variety of other self-sabotaging behaviors. Hence, guilt feelings are actually necessary to take appropriate responsibility for a significant positive behavioral change. What, then, is to be done about such unwarranted self-inflicting pain? How can you effectively talk to yourself out of an undeserved emotion that threatens to take hold of you? For, after all, feelings of guilt tend to culminate into painful, counter-productive rumination—which, in turn, only strengthens the feeling and intensifies your emotional misery.
Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. psychotherapist in California proposes some steps. He is an author of several scripts, and he writes from experience.
Tell yourself that you did the best you could
Whatever lapse of sound judgment impelled you to do something you now regret was yet the best judgment available to you at the time. You may simply have been too angry, anxious, depressed, distracted, or fatigued to have been in full possession of your moral faculties. You have to accept that given the particular psychological or physical circumstances prevailing at the time, you couldn’t have acted any differently from the way you did. In other words, forgive yourself. It is also important to explore the circumstances that provoked your misconduct.
Consider that at the time of your misbehavior, you didn’t know what you know now
It is improper to blame yourself for acting in that way when you did not have full awareness of mind and consciousness. Tell yourself if you knew you would definitely have avoided it. Therefore it is important to evaluate your Guild feelings realistically. It resonates with the other topics: what you feed your mind is what turns to be your feeling, be it negative or positive. You can’t blame yourself for doing things when you had no prior knowledge. At times guilt feeling pop in when you convince yourself that you could have avoided certain problems of others. But you should tell yourself that you cannot solve all the problems of others.
Avoid blaming yourself for a mistake or mishap that was beyond your control
It is irrational to blame yourself for an intention, or volition, that may not at all characterize your behavior. If you’d had the awareness, intuition, insight, energy, etc. that at the time you didn’t have, of course you’d have acted differently. But since the actual facts of the situation contradict the notion that you could have behaved otherwise, to guilt yourself over some misfortune is, almost literally, an insult to yourself. You can’t beat yourself up for mistakes that, from time to time, all of us make. If so, you need to stop being so hard on yourself. You may assume that if you let yourself off the hook, you’d only commit additional errors. In fact, if you’re less nervous about, or distracted by, the possibility of making a mistake, this alone will probably reduce the number of blunders you’re likely to commit. Any number of things that can cause you and/or others emotional or physical pain may relate to situations that aren’t primarily your responsibility. They may involve you, but they don’t necessarily implicate you.
Convince yourself that the behavioral ideals you set for yourself may be too high, or that your original family may have forced you to adopt
This is another important psychological factor that needs deep consideration. Often our values and goal which are computerized in our sub-conscious mind were injected to us by our family, culture and religion during our childhood. They become the yard stick that influences our thoughts and eventually our feelings. Unconsciously they are the code of our character and we think and feel automatically without our full awareness.
It’s possible that you guilt yourself for not accomplishing (or even attempting) something that really isn’t in you to achieve. We all have certain inherent limits, and if you got the message that if you failed at something it was only because you hadn’t tried hard enough, you may emotionally punish yourself whenever you don’t succeed at something you wrongly believe you could have, or should have.
Acknowledge and honor your right to protect your self-interests
Some people find it hard to say no, and they say so they feel guilty. But we are not morally responsible for complying with other people demands. We have our own limits and we act according to our possibility. This does not mean that we don’t have moral obligation to advocate for others. The point at stake is that we do according to our abilities. If we cater to others’ interests and typically ignore our own, in order to avoid the guilt we would experience, that is yet another self/inflicted emotional damage. If that is the case one has to make self-searching if there are some inborn irrational demands that induce us to such unhealthy behavior. We need to consider the probable source of such self-demeaning behavior. Someone may have injected into us during childhood to deny our needs in a wrong manner. If so, it is high time for us to empirically put to the test such negative assumptions about ourselves.
Talk compassionately but authoritatively to the “inner child” part of you from whom most of your irrational guilt programs originated.
As it has been stressed several times in the topic of emotional management, at an earlier age one can virtually assume that we received messages from our caretakers “instructing” us that certain of our behaviors were bad. Those instructions provoke us hence the feelings of guilt. Lacking the authority back then to question or challenge their viewpoint, we decided to adhere and adapt to these rules. Consequently, we guilt ourselves whenever our actions didn’t conform to these, presumably, indisputable standards.
But when one becomes older, he/she has every right, based on one’s own experience and personally derived moral framework, to “re-decide” what one thinks is wrong or forbidden – versus – what’s fair and permissible. Or at least what, in ones own value system, is understandable, and so deserving of forgiveness. Needless to say, guilt feelings don’t rhyme with the Christian message brought to us by Jesus Christ. The Bible repeatedly invites us to admit our mistakes. We have several passages that illustrate the “Docile and Loving Heart of God” !! As stated at the introduction of emotional management, psychological help is very important, but can’t substitute the spiritual and religious dimension.
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