8 Ways to Stop Us from Feeling So Guilty All the Time

Posted on March 27, 2017

Photo: flickr

Guilt is a key part of the human emotional spectrum. We blame ourselves for doing wrong more often than we think. Research shows that females are more likely to feel guilty. When women and men of different age groups were asked about what situations would most likely incite guilt in them, it was found that women were more habitually guilty than men in all three age groups, with the most pronounced gap between participants in their forties and fifties. They form the “sandwich generation”: that is, the adults that are literally sandwiched between their children and aging parents, and find themselves having to take care of both. Another study found that when women had to attend to work-related duties at night, such as taking calls or responding to emails, they were reportedly more guilty than men in similar situations. Millennials and female millennials typically also feel guiltier about going on holidays.

All these pieces of research depict a prevailing trend: females feel guiltier than men. This is not due to the psychological or genetic makeup of women, but perhaps due to the differing methods of upbringing between men and women. Men have been brought up to be the dominant and leading gender, the “alpha male”. Unlike men, women have been brought up for eons to be submissive and agreeable to what others say, as well as to be the nurturers in their families. This supportive nature in women causes them to feel more apologetic and guiltier when they feel that they have made a mistake. In many households, women also take on the role of maintaining connections with relatives and friends, as well as keeping the family running smoothly.

The most important question remains: is guilty healthy or unhealthy? As you can probably guess, guilt can be healthy and/or unhealthy. Healthy feelings of guilt can allow people to live principled lives according to their own values and beliefs. This also means that they will probably have healthier relationships with others, because they are more likely to take responsibility for their own actions and treat others fairly. Unfortunately, excessive guilt can become a psychological burden that can then have adverse effects on one’s emotional well-being and quality of life.

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 diagnostic criteria, too much guilt and perhaps misplaced guilt have been identified as symptoms of clinical depression. Traumatic experiences during one’s formative years and post-traumatic stress disorder have also been linked to feelings of excessive guilt. Such guilt is known as traumatic guilt, and can be felt in terms of “survivor’s guilt”, for example. Others may feel guilty for carrying on with life when their loved ones are experiencing bad times. In fact, guilty feelings can be associated with low self-esteem and unworthiness, such as in the case of children whose parents are neglectful, abusive or overly critical towards them. Others who suffer from eating disorders can feel guilty about the tiniest weight gain or about not exercising enough. In such cases, their opinions on their body image are often warped and unpleasant.

For those who tend to feel guilty too often and too deeply, here are some tips to help you reign in your guilt. Note that patterns of guilt are often deeply ingrained, and would take time and patience to deliberately alter.

1. Have evidence of the truth on hand

If you are feeling guilty because you think that you have not done enough for others, make a list of the things you have done for them. Keep this list in an accessible place and refer to it when you are feeling particularly bad about yourself.

2. Seek answers

Ask those that you are feeling guilty towards to see if they share the same thoughts as you (i.e. if they do not feel taken care of or if they feel neglected). Take note of whether the person is liable to expecting too much of others. Ask those around you to see if they agree with your self-assessment. If the conclusion states that your guilt is not unwarranted, take steps to do more, and hence strike a balance between everyone’s needs and wants.

3. Be appreciative of your own efforts

Do not forget how much you have done for others. Some keep a “self-gratitude” diary to remind themselves of things they have done for their loved ones. Remember to read it at the end of every week to take stock of your actions and to appreciate yourself. This is because emotions like guilt pander towards the negative; people tend to focus on what they have not accomplished rather than what they have done. Focusing on what you have done can help to ease your guilt.

4. Put yourself in others’ shoes

Oftentimes, we tend to uphold much higher standards and expectations of ourselves as compared to others. Hence, deliberately detaching yourself from your own situation by placing your circumstances and actions on someone else can allow you to view your situation in a more objective light, and consider whether you truly deserve to feel guilty.

5. Think about the in-betweens, not just the extremes

Rather than expecting yourself to be perfect, consider other perspectives and outlooks on your situation. Many of us pressure ourselves to be the perfect child or spouse, and if we think that we are imperfect, we think that we are as low as scum on earth. Instead, we should learn to focus on the grey, and not the black and white.

6. Ask yourself: Is guilt the primary emotion? Or is it something else?

Sometimes, the guilt we experience might be masking other feelings underneath, including and not limited to resentment, anger or intimidation. For instance, if you are in a relationship with someone who is demanding or expects a lot from the relationship, you might think that you are not doing enough, or perhaps your partner might convince you that you need to do more. Hence, the subsequent feelings of guilt and inner turmoil that you experience might end up masking your true resentment.

7. Set realistic expectations for your commitments and live up to them

If you honestly think that you need to do more for your loved ones, plan specific activities that show your commitment to them, and genuinely make an effort to get these activities done.

8. Know that it is alright to take care of yourself

For some of us, we have been entrusted with many responsibilities from a young age, and have learnt to always put others before ourselves. For instance, some of us might have had absentee or workaholic parents, and have had to take full care of our younger siblings throughout theirs, and much of our own childhoods. Such habits are hard to kick, and many grow up still keeping mum about their own needs. Others might feel that their partners deserve more than them. It is imperative to realise that our past relationships do not define our present ones; romantic relationships, for example, should involve equal partnerships.

Ultimately, while guilt is a knee-jerk reaction in many situations, it is important to know when guilt is healthy and when it is unwarranted or even harmful.

Category(s):Adult psychological development, Caregiver Issues / Stress, Women's Issues

Source material from Psychology Today

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