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It’s normal and healthy to feel guilty when you’ve done something wrong. Guilt is an emotion that helps to signal that you made a bad choice. Your brain is warning you that your bad choice can negatively affect your social relationships or well-being. That’s an important emotion, so you don’t destroy your social connections through bad behavior.
Some people want to eliminate their feelings of negativity and guilt, but that is the wrong approach. Instead, you want to focus on separating genuine, reasonable guilt from the kind of guilt that does not accurately reflect reality. After all, guilt provides us with an emotional motivation to see and correct the wrongs we’ve done.
Guilt doesn’t always come from a good place. Sometimes, residual problems or behaviors can create guilt where there shouldn’t be any. You may feel guilty for no reason or because of the bad decisions of others. You may feel guilty for not giving more and more of yourself until there’s nothing left.
And some people will take advantage of your guilt if they know they can. Guilt is a powerful tool of control and manipulation. A person that can make you feel guilty can use your negative feelings as leverage against you to coerce you into actions or decisions that are not your own. You may feel like you’ve done something wrong when you haven’t.
So, how do you stop feeling guilty when you didn’t do anything wrong?
1. Identify your guilt.
Identifying your guilt is to determine where exactly it’s coming from. You should be able to draw a direct line of cause and effect between an action and the guilt that you are experiencing.
– You made arrangements to go out on a date with someone on Friday night and completely forgot.
– You agreed to help your sibling out with moving but didn’t realize you had committed to something else on the same day.
– You made a bad decision that hurt the feelings of someone you care about.
– You chose to do something wrong, even though you knew it was wrong.
– You did something that hurt someone else unintentionally.
Other times, you won’t be able to identify a direct source of guilt. In that case, you may feel guilty for something you didn’t do wrong.
2. Is your guilt reasonable?
Sometimes guilt is reasonable; sometimes it’s not. Your guilt is likely pointing to a bad action in the above scenarios. However, the problem is that sometimes we can have a skewed perspective on what “reasonable” is.
– Sarah’s mother voluntold her that she is going to do a thing for her. Sarah doesn’t want to do it and doesn’t have the time to do it. But she wants to make her mother happy, so Sarah tries to work it into her schedule. That doesn’t work because she has too many other things going on. So, she can’t make it to do the thing her mother told her to do. Her mom scolds her for not doing as ordered, tells her she’s a bad daughter, worthless, and doesn’t love her mother because she won’t submit to her demands.
– Terance is a people-pleaser who has a hard time saying no. If anyone needs help, they call him first because they know he has poor boundaries. He won’t say no to taking on additional work because he wants to avoid conflict and doesn’t want to let anyone down. Doing for other people is how he demonstrates that he cares about them, but he goes too far and constantly sets himself on fire to keep other people warm. And when he inevitably can’t keep up with everything he commits, he feels guilty because he cannot fulfill those requests.
– Leigh’s friend is lamenting that they just have too much to do and not enough time to do it. Leigh knows she has some free time later and could probably volunteer to do it, but she’d prefer to have a little time to herself. She feels guilty because she could help her friend, but they are a person who is constantly taking on additional work. That other work messes with their schedule, and Leigh doesn’t want her friend’s poor boundaries to bleed over into her life.
These are all examples of unreasonable guilt.
The common thread between them is that they violate healthy boundaries and expectations.
In the first example, the respectful thing to do would have been for Sarah’s mom to ask her for help rather than ordering. Healthy boundaries mean you don’t just accept and swallow whatever other people throw your way, relatives or not. But, of course, this is easier said than done. Many must pick their battles if they don’t want to completely cut someone out of their life. Sarah’s mom might otherwise be a good mother, but she just happens to be bad with asking instead of telling.
In the second example, people take advantage of Terance’s desire to keep the peace and please people. They know he won’t say no, so they are willing to shuffle more work and responsibility onto him. Terance needs to be able to tell people no. Otherwise, he will get buried in that other work. And, typically, other people will complain and make him feel bad about not being able to do it all! Again, it’s not reasonable or fair to Terance.
In the third example, Leigh is not responsible for her friend’s poor decisions and weak boundaries. Sure, it’s okay if Leigh wants to make time to help her friend once in a while. But it should not become a habit and shouldn’t constantly encroach on Leigh’s space. At some point, Leigh will likely need to put her foot down and say she isn’t going to do any more.
Any one of those people may feel guilty about not meeting the expectations placed on their shoulders by other people. But every one of these people is allowed to have boundaries, is allowed to say no, and should have that respected without a guilt trip. None of them did anything wrong.
3. What is reasonable guilt?
As we’ve established, sometimes guilt is a good thing. It’s a good thing when there is a tangible reason for you to feel guilty because you did something wrong.
Some examples include:
– Shayla lies to her best friend so she can go out with another friend.
– John borrows a tool from his brother but doesn’t end up returning it, effectively stealing it.
– Matt steps outside of his relationship to flirt with another man.
– Jen accidentally breaks a family heirloom that her father values greatly.
– Hunter says something he regrets in a moment of anger to his wife.
These actions are healthy examples of guilt because they are mostly within the control of the person doing wrong or were avoidable. No one is forcing anyone to lie to their best friend, steal from their brother, flirt outside of a relationship, or be unkind to their partner in a moment of anger. Jen’s example is an accident, but it’s reasonable for her to feel guilty for breaking something that her father values because it hurts her father.
Consider what’s within your control and what’s not. Consider whether or not the action that you feel guilty about was an accident or not. If it’s your responsibility, your mistake, or within your control, your guilt is likely reasonable, and you should try to make amends to alleviate the guilt.
4. Accept your guilt.
Accepting your guilt is a trio of words that do not necessarily communicate the right context. For example, to accept your guilt does not mean to say, “Oh yeah, this was my fault and responsibility!”
Instead, we’re looking at a different context. Accepting your guilt in this context means acknowledging that the guilty emotion exists and needs to be addressed. Many people who experience guilt attempt to deal with it by not dealing with it. Instead, they shove it down and away, try to ignore it, and move on with their life. They may rationalize those negative feelings, telling themselves that the feelings aren’t a big deal.
But, much like many emotions, they don’t stay gone forever. They will eventually come back, and they will come back with a vengeance, especially if you know that you were wrong. So, should you feel guilty about something you didn’t do, you will still need to approach those feelings to find a way to resolve them.
It’s okay for you to acknowledge, “I feel guilty because…”
5. Resolving reasonable guilt.
Resolving reasonable guilt is pretty simple. All you really need to do is apologize to the person and then try to make it right with them. If your actions were an accident or an oversight, chances are pretty good that the other person will forgive you and tell you not to worry about it. Most reasonable people will know that sometimes we make bad decisions or do dumb things. Most reasonable people will also have things they feel guilty about or know that they will inevitably do something that requires your forgiveness later on.
Not-so-good people might try to use your guilt as leverage against you. While it is a good thing to try to correct your error, make sure that they aren’t trying to take too much from you. Your bad choice or mistake is not permission for someone to kick you around or demand unreasonable compensation. It’s reasonable for them to ask you to right the situation you made wrong.
6. Resolving unreasonable guilt.
So, what if you feel guilty for something you didn’t do? The best approach is to dissect the guilt, identify where it’s coming from, and give yourself space to feel your emotions.
Ask yourself, “Why do I feel guilty?” What is the primary driver behind this emotion? If you didn’t do anything wrong, there is likely some other circumstance causing you to feel the way you do.
It might be a chronic problem created by an unkind adult when you were younger. Maybe they made you feel like you were never good enough, so it became a habit for you to feel guilty, not good enough, whenever anything went wrong.
Maybe it was an abusive romantic partner that constantly told you that you weren’t good enough no matter what you tried. Their goal wasn’t to express healthy emotions surrounding an action that may have negatively affected them. Instead, their goal might have been to wear down your self-esteem and cause you to think that you’re not good enough.
Unreasonable guilt may be rooted in depression, anxiety, or trauma. These mental health struggles amplify negative feelings like sadness, emptiness, and guilt. The resolution for this type of guilt will rely on addressing the cause driving the unreasonable guilt.
You may be able to provide yourself with some temporary relief through the following:
– Take some time to feel your emotions, then journal them out. We recommend a pen and paper for this practice. Sitting down to write allows you to focus on organizing your thoughts in a much different way than banging them out on a keyboard.
– Sit quietly with the feelings, reminding yourself that this is not your responsibility until the feelings pass. They may or may not pass quickly. They may linger instead of passing. Still, providing yourself the platform to feel those feelings allows your brain to process them.
– Forgive yourself for being human. To forgive yourself is to not linger on the bad feelings, hurting yourself with them by focusing on how bad of a person you are. Instead, replace those internal narratives with kinder words. “I am doing the best that I can.” “This was not my responsibility to do.” “I am not my mistakes.” Repeat these kinds of mantras more often than you repeat the negative ones. If that sounds hard, well, that’s because it is.
– Work on practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of observing the present moment without emotion or judgment. The more you work on mindfulness, the easier it is to avoid getting wrapped up in emotions that may prove detrimental to you. In addition, you can interrupt some of these thought processes to keep them from perpetuating themselves. So, if you are prone to feeling guilty for things you’re not responsible for, you may find that you can interrupt that thought process before it ever really gets going.
– Allow yourself to feel your negative emotions. Most people take great pains to avoid negative emotions. The problem is that it wires your reactions to seek immediate relief from those negative emotions. Instead, it can be helpful to give yourself some time to sit with your negative emotions and let yourself feel. This kind of practice helps to alleviate that immediate response to resolve the negative feeling. The issue with feeling that pressure is that many negative emotions can’t be immediately resolved.
– Take a pragmatic view of your emotions. It’s okay to feel things. However, you want to avoid ruminating on the negative feelings to such a point that you drive your emotions into the ground. For example, instead of asking, “Why me? Why do I feel this guilt?” instead, ask yourself, “What purpose is this guilt serving? Is there a reason I should be feeling this guilt?” If you can’t identify a reason or didn’t do anything wrong, it should be easier to set aside those emotions and move on.
7. Consider seeing a counselor.
The truth is that feeling bad for things you don’t do is often a byproduct of problems that you can’t solve with self-help. It may be trauma, surviving abusive relationships, or unkind people doing the things that unkind people do.
It will be a great idea to speak with a counselor if you find that you are struggling with guilt or that you keep thinking you’ve done something wrong. Psychotherapy can make a huge difference in resolving your unfounded guilt, so it doesn’t control your life any further.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
You’ve already taken the first step just by searching for and reading this article. The worst thing you can do right now is nothing. The best thing is to speak to a therapist. The next best thing is to implement everything you’ve learned in this article by yourself. The choice is yours.
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- How To Stop Being A People Pleaser: 15 Tips That Actually Work!