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Understanding guilt

It’s worth taking time to unpack these feelings
Blog 109 Guilt

What is guilt? A short little word, hardly worth noticing, really. An emotion that flares up now and then. Easily subdued with our long list of items to do in our busy lives. And yet, like a wallet or handbag that collects items here and there, guilt starts to get heavier. Our shoulders or hips start to adjust to the extra weight and throw out our equilibrium. But life is busy! I’m fine! I’ve got things to do. I know I should’ve been kinder to my colleague, but he knows I’m stressed; yes, I know that light was red, but I wasn’t even close to that old lady and she’ll be okay; I’ve been friends with that person forever, so I know we’ll make up and she’ll forget I criticised her business idea.

Guilt is an emotion we experience when we feel responsible for an offence. It can even be a perceived offence, like surviving a terrible ordeal that other people didn’t. However, like a lot of uncomfortable emotions, we’ve labelled it bad, learned to ignore it, pack it away and get on with life.

What if we no longer judged the emotion as good or bad, and instead sat with it and checked it out? What if we thought about what we did and how it impacted other people? Discomfort can be aroused because the values expressed by our behaviour are not in alignment with our values, or with what we know are society’s values. Reflecting on the guilt can enable us to get back on track.

Here’s something to consider: a 2018 study found that ‘guilt-proneness predicts trustworthiness better than a variety of other personality measures.’ Guilt can actually be a good emotion, leading us to a decision to do better in the future, especially if our empathy kicks in and we see that we are responsible for how our actions affect others.

Perfectionism is also linked to guilt. It’s understandable, isn’t it, if you always expect to be perfect and do things to perfection. If that’s you, consider easing your standards and prioritising what is most important to do well. Research shows that although more people are perfectionists, we aren’t accomplishing more. In fact, we’re getting sadder and sicker, with even children succumbing to this pressure to do more and be more, and falling into depression and anxiety.

What about those people who use guilt to manipulate us into behaving a certain way? Think of the phrase, ‘If you love me /respect me / want to keep your job you would…’ Heard (or said) that before? We could respond in three different ways: Feel guilt and be manipulated; get mad (sometimes when people are unsure how to deal with strong emotions they lash out); or consider what the other person’s intentions are, and compare them with your own to find some common ground.

As the article by Bobby Cappuccio here at The Coach Place states, guilt and shame are ineffective motivators. Parenting has come a long way since the days when kids would listen to parents say: ‘Shame on you’, or ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’ Shame is a whole different level of feelings. Guilt relates to feeling bad for something we feel responsible for, while shame relates to a sense of self as a failure, of being useless. Trying to make someone feel these emotions so they’ll do something you want is psychological manipulation and often a sign of bullying.

Sometimes we confuse the meanings of regret and guilt, and it’s important to understand the difference. Guilt is what we feel for an event we caused or thought we caused. Regret is for events we weren’t responsible for, or for missed opportunities: I regret not starting life coaching earlier, or I regret leaving the room when Nanna died.

If guilt flares up for you then sit with it and explore it. Figure out what you can do to right the situation, if that’s what it’s about. However, if you find you’re feeling guilt about all sorts of things, your self-esteem can be affected. Consider whether the expectations you are putting on yourself are realistic. Are you living by your values? Putting in the time to reflect on your emotions is a key process of emotional intelligence and well worth the effort. Let us know how it goes!

- The Coach Place Global team.

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