Guilt is a feeling each one of us experiences at some point during our lives. In fact, estimates show that we spend about five hours per week experiencing guilty feelings! In those moments, many wish to have know a simple technique: how to forgive yourself.
While guilt can be helpful in small and fair amounts (such as feeling guilty over slacking off on a piece of homework), it can amass and negatively interact with other harmful emotions, thereby creating exponentially more problems for us in our daily lives. The good news is that there are therapeutic methods out there that target feelings of guilt and help us reconstruct those emotions into more positive and helpful ones. It is never too late to learn how to forgive yourself.
What Is Guilt?
Guilt doesn’t always creep up on the spur of a moment. Instead, it often lingers and won’t go away until we actively try to resolve it. Think of guilt as being like an unread text message; the alert your phone gives you won’t go away until you examine the message. Guilt functions along a similar vein.
Shame tends to be the eternal companion of guilt. When we acknowledge our guilt, we experience feelings of shame. Simply indulging in a salty snack food might lead a person to feel ashamed about having strayed from an otherwise strict diet.
Why do we tend to punish ourselves with these feelings? The answer most therapists give is that guilt and shame can be traced back to how we were taught to behave in childhood. As children, we learn to seek our parents’ approval of our actions. When our parents approve, we receive plenty of rewards, including verbal praise. However, when we do or say something that our parents disapprove of, we encounter reprimands, including being told that we are bad (sometimes without any given explanation of why we’ve been bad).
The guilt and shame we learn as children carry over into how we conduct ourselves as adults. It is therefore normal to seek the approval of others. Actually, our responses to disapproval that tend to cause the most problems.
Symptoms of Guilt
Guilt (and shame) can physically and emotionally manifest in a number of ways. Pre-existing depression and/or anxiety can certainly exacerbate these issues. Of course, guilt can also be the cause of symptoms like the anxiety and depression. Some of the most common symptoms of guilt are:
- Muscle tension (hypertension);
- Sleep disturbances;
- Feeling on-edge;
- Feeling a persistent need to apologize;
- Being clingy;
- Taking actions to avoid judgement;
- Taking actions to please others;
- Difficulty saying no to others.
These symptoms can vary among different people and between various circumstances (for example, in the aftermath of the death of a loved one).
Causes of Guilt
There is no single explanation for why guilt occurs. Many life events can trigger or heighten feelings of guilt and shame. As previously mentioned, guilt is something that is conditioned early in childhood and reinforced as we grow into adulthood. At the root of all causes of guilt is the disapproval or fear of disapproval from others, especially from those whose opinions we desire and respect.
Some of the seemingly most common causes of guilt include:
- Doing something perceived as bad;
- Not doing something that we had wanted to do;
- Irrational framing of a situation or something you did (in other words, thinking we are guilty for something we think we did);
- Feeling as though we did not do enough to help someone;
- Feeling that we are doing better than someone else;
- Not spending enough time with a loved one (especially if they are ill or have passed away);
- Spending money on thyrself (versus saving it or spending it on someone else);
- Not satisfying a romantic partner;
- Telling others no.
Other Issues That Relate to Guilt
There is no specific timeline or framework for how we process feelings of guilt. However, many people might not be aware that what they are feeling is actually guilt. Therefore, it can be difficult to face our wrongdoings because of this.
Holding ourselves fairly and accurately accountable for the consequences of what we have done (or failed to do) is the anxiety for working through feelings of guilt. This is the first step a therapist will take in showing you how to forgive yourself.
Guilt Treatment Options
There are many different types of therapy for working through feelings of guilt and shame, all of which center around helping you figure out how to forgive yourself.
- One of the most commonly used forms of therapy for guilt is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In this model, a therapist can show you how to forgive yourself through teaching you cognitive restructuring. This is essentially a replacement of negative thoughts with positive ones through an analysis of what inspired those feelings and how realistic they are (or are not).
- A type of guilt therapy that is becoming popular is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT helps you learn how to forgive yourself through emphasizing the importance of self-acceptance. ACT has shown to be effective in treating those experiencing guilt and shame related to substance abuse and while negotiating losses that can lead to feelings of guilt and shame (such as the death of a loved one).
Guilt and Self-Forgiveness in Popular Media
Examples of guilt permeate our culture. There is Derek in the film American History X covering his swastika tattoo in regret over his former identity as a neo-Nazi. There is also Rachel’s need to feel guilty about what she does during her blackout episodes in Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train.
Out of these two examples, Rachel seems to experience the most self-forgiveness, as she realizes someone else has been manipulating her into feeling guilty for years.
Guilt is a common feeling and is considered a normative response to many life events. However, it should not impede one’s quality-of-life and can be effectively navigated with the help of a compassionate therapist.
There is no shame in reaching out, and it is possible for you to learn how to forgive yourself (and accept yourself, too).
Images from depositphotos.com.