UNDERSTANDING AND REDUCING EXCESSIVE GUILT
Malcolm Miller, Ph.D.
As a continuation of last month’s article, this month will concentrate on the damaging effects of excessive guilt and how to begin the process of reducing such guilt.
Damaging Effects of Excessive Guilt
There are unfortunately so many clients I see in my practice who are terribly critical of themselves, when I am so impressed by their efforts, accomplishments, and integrity. Guilt deprives them of seeing the good in themselves and the positive impact they have made on others. Also, since it always leaves them looking back to their past, it hinders their ability to accomplish more or enjoy life as much as they could.
As discussed last month, excessive guilt and self criticism do not just last for a few years, they can last throughout individuals’ lives. It leads them into long term relationships and jobs that are not fulfilling for them, where they feel criticized frequently and feel they should have done better.
Finally, I am a bit reluctant to write this because it may increase the reader’s guilt; excessive guilt often significantly impacts children. Children model themselves after those they know, and who do they know better than their own parents? If their parent or parents tend to put themselves down and not appreciate their strengths, the children will likely learn to do the same themselves. Also, children try to rescue their parents from their guilt. This results in their trying to be the parent to their parent. If the sense of guilt is deeply ingrained in the parents, this is a mission that will not be accomplished and leaves the children with a further sense of guilt for having failed the parents. The parents saying “You don’t have to worry about me” unfortunately falls on deaf ears. Hopefully, those of you to whom this applies can begin altering this pattern, both within yourselves and as role models for your children, by closely examining and trying to practice the points below and by seeking the assistance of a qualified psychotherapist if that would be best.
How to Begin the Process of Reducing or Resolving Guilt
Guilt, as described in this article, is the false idea that you could have done better, that you had the power to make better choices. In actuality, your emotional state, your past conditioning, your beliefs and knowledge, your instincts and intuition—were likely just too strong.
It would be wonderful if reducing excessive guilt were as easy as Bob Newhart, playing a therapist, states in a comedy skit called “Stop It!” available on Youtube. Unfortunately, changing ingrained patterns is much more difficult than using a phrase or even reading an article such as this one or self help books. The best I can provide are some thoughts to seriously ponder that over time and through further reading or through professional assistance can relieve the oppressive guilt feelings.
I believe there are four major interrelated changes you need to make within yourself to begin the process of reducing excessive guilt. The first is for you to be able to embody the concept of “unconditional positive regard” discussed by the noted psychologist Carl Rogers. As it pertains to this article, this involves an unconditional acceptance of yourself as a person, no matter what you have said or done. It is the belief that you as a person are inherently good at your core. It is not unconditional acceptance of your actions or negative thoughts, but it is unconditional positive regard of your personhood. Unconditional positive regard for oneself, although not easy to attain, creates the foundation for growth and ability to use the other means described below to reduce guilt.
“To err is human, to forgive is divine.” Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
The second is to realize it is not only important to forgive others but also to forgive yourself. Life is a process of learning, changing and growing. Because of anger, hurt, immaturity or misunderstanding, we all do things we later regret. This may involve saying something hurtful to someone we later are sorry for, impulse buying and developing large credit card debt, or taking something we should not have taken. We are human beings and the nature of human beings is to make mistakes; the steps then are to try to rectify the situation, learn from those mistakes, and then forgive ourselves for what cannot now be changed. For further information on forgiveness, you may wish to read the News and Events connected with Part I of this article by Sondra Plone, Ph.D.
The third, related to the above two, is the importance of focusing on the present and future rather than dwelling on the past, which one cannot change. This means one needs to look forward, rather than back and see if there is any means to rectify the situation, make amends, and not repeat your mistakes. Guilt is in itself a non corrective and damaging course of action, and it actually takes energy away from doing better. The wisdom of philosophers and successful individuals, such as Warren Buffet, is that our learning and moving on from our mistakes help us to become better and more successful people. “Would have…Could have… Should have…” leave us stagnant.
The fourth is to reevaluate the statements and actions of guilt inducing people in our present and past. Have these people really been trying to guide us or were they actually trying to blame us for their own errors and/or trying to have us conform to their own selfish needs? This point is discussed on this website—you may wish to read Feeling Guilty? It May Not Be Your Fault. Someone Else Could Be Manipulating Your Emotions by Carol Boulware, Ph.D.
There are also some specific actions you can take, but these will only be minimally successful in reducing patterns of feeling guilty if you do not incorporate the above. The first is to realize that asking the other person for forgiveness or making amends can have a tremendous impact. Think of times when your anger has melted away when someone gave a heartfelt apology and promised to do their best to prevent a reoccurrence. Linked to this is making reparation. “Please let me replace this.” or “Let me pay for dinner since I kept you waiting so long.” Also most people are very impressed by the concern for them when someone apologizes or acts to compensate them. An added surprise many of my clients have noted is that when they approach the other person they learn the other had completely forgotten about the issue or forgave them a long time ago. However it is important to realize these actions will not be successful if the other’s main motivation is to have you feel guilty.
Another important method is to use your own good judgment to evaluate the situation. While each of us has immature parts of our personality where we do or say foolish things or have excessive guilt, most of us also have an objective side of ourselves that is able to evaluate the situation clear of our emotions. Over the years this has been known as the “observing ego” or the “adult” side of our personality. How many times have you given others better advice than you followed yourself?
The key in this section is to learn how to better apply this to yourself. In my practice, I use a variant of the Gestalt method of “the empty chair.” When clients share with me they do not know whether guilt is appropriate or what to do in a situation, I frequently ask them to move to another chair. Then I create the following scenario. “Let’s say a very good friend of yours is in this exact situation and asks for your help.” I then repeat all the relevant factors of this situation. “The friend is confused, and you know all about the situation. Since this is a good friend needing your help; ‘I don’t know” is not an option. What would you say?” Nine times out of 10 the client will give an answer close to what my recommendation would have been. This can involve evaluating whether the guilt is excessive, if “yes” the next step is to figure out the “why?” Finally we role play what is needed to make a decision or take action. When I have asked if my client is giving this answer because (s)he knows the answer I am looking for, I am typically told “no”, this would be what the client would tell the friend. Through consistently repeating this method, the more immature side can become gradually more mature and grow past the client’s own condemnation and that placed upon the person by others. Also the client feels proud that the best answer actually exists inside him(her)self. I often refer to this process as creating a bridge between the hurt, vulnerable side of themselves and the more adult, objective side and assisting the more immature side to grow and to develop into an understanding and realistic adult—for oneself.
I hope this discussion has been helpful in better understanding your excessive guilt and beginning the process or reducing such oppressive guilt. As mentioned before there are many books and articles written on the subject. On this website, you may wish to read
November/December 2008 SHAME, And Our Selves in Relationship by Anita Frankel, M.F.T. Her article is about a closely connected topic. “Shame is the emotional consequence of feeling marginalized, devalued, disempowered, or disgraced. It follows from the perception that we are unlovable, unacceptable, and disturbing to others.”
Also there are several other excellent articles on self esteem on this website which bear on this subject.
Should you wish a confidential session to discuss any of this further, please feel free to contact Dr. Miller at 310-822-8898. Offices are in West Los Angeles and Torrance.
Also, if you have not done so already, please take the Guilt Questionnaire in the Psych Bytes section.
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