by Veronica Vaiti, LCSW-R
The topic of grappling with guilt is an all too familiar one for a lot of people and it is a recurring theme in sessions with many of my clients and quite frankly, one I’ve wrestled with myself. Guilt is a powerful and simultaneously wretched emotional state, one we are at once all too eager to rid ourselves of yet can’t seem to climb out from underneath its weight. Like most uncomfortable and unwanted feeling states, if we tend to it with care and curiosity, the learnings and growth can be tremendous and immeasurable.
What is guilt really made of? Simply put, guilt is the feeling that results from having the knowledge or perception that you have committed a wrongful thought, word or deed(action or inaction) that may or have already caused hurt, pain, harm or discomfort to yourself or others. Allow me to offer a few hypothetical examples:
1-Guilt from THOUGHT: an teenage girl who has a positive, trusting and fully communicative relationship with her parents and who rarely disappoints them is overcome from guilt because she is merely thinking about sneaking out one night to attend a music concert on a school night with a friend.
2-Guilt from WORD: while at a dinner party hosted by his girlfriend, a man makes an offhand sarcastic comment to one of the guests how he thinks, “fidelity is overrated” his girlfriend then shoots him a look of shock, confusion and hurt and he shakes his head from guilt and dread.
3-Guilt from DEED/ACTION : a father is called away on a crucial business meeting that could jeopardize his career at the same time he was supposed to attend his daughters much anticipated first dance recital.
4-Guilt from DEED/INACTION: an overweight young woman who made a promise to herself to go to the gym every morning before work, shuts off the alarm when it sounds, rolls over and returns to sleep. Later that morning on her way to work, she feels an enormous sense of guilt.
Guilt in and of itself is not a terrible thing. In fact, guilt is an essential aspect in helping us form a moral conscience and it is a natural part of our socialization process. More specifically, when we feel a sense of guilt the naturally humane tendency is to move towards making an apology and reparative action or gesture. Guilt can then help us learn how to be accountable to and conscientious of others and how to take responsibility for oneself which are crucial elements in the development of healthy relationships. In fact the presence of a guilt is evidence that one is not a sociopath; in other words, you feel guilt, congratulations, you have a conscience.
Yet it is the mishandling of guilt, either internally or externally, that changes into its well-known toxic form that can feel like you’ve just stepped into a pit a quicksand with an iron anchor tied to your ankles. Internally, when we engage in excessive rumination, obsession or overinvestment in the “badness” of the feeling, thought, word or deed, we set ourselves up to play by a self-defeating script of endless self-derision. Externally, when guilt is unduly projected onto us by others (ie, a “guilt trip”) in way that we are made to feel “bad” or even worse, unforgiveable even though we may have made an attempt at an appropriate apology or reparation, in this case, we have unwittingly stepped into a futile role of working out the projector’s unfinished business, which doesn’t really bode well for either party involved.
The good news is that there are proven methods for working with guilt of both the healthy and unhealthy magnitude. Let’s take a look at the steps that can be helpful in recovering from a blow of guilt.
Step 1 – GET A HANDLE ON THE SITUATION – First and foremost, it is important to separate out the physical sensations of the feeling from the cognitive, what I call the “storyline” of what may happen or what has already occurred so that you can tend to them both properly (per Step 2 and 3) . It can be hard to think rationally when overcome with unnerving physical feelings. Once you can separate out the physical from the cognitive and decide which is more overwhelming for you and needs attention first, then you can continue from there according to what you need the most. Therefore, you may either proceed in straight or reverse numerical order, Step 2 then Step 3, or Step 3 then Step 2.
Step 2 – CLARIFY THE COGNITIVE STORYLINE – Do a fact check of the situation. Imagine yourself as a private investigator and retell the situation with the facts of what is known to be true, leaving out anything extra such as what you may fear or imagine to be true.
Step 3 – TEND TO THE YOUR PHYSICAL SELF – This part is best practiced in the company of a skilled experiential therapist. However, I will do my best to break down the process in a self-help, user-friendly manner below…
a) Ground Yourself – Find a peaceful location where you can have some space. Sit or lay down and turn your awareness towards the sound and movement of your breath in your body. Notice where your body makes contact with the support you are seated in (ie, notice where your back makes contact with the couch, feel your feet on the floor).
b) Gentle Physical Inquiry – While maintaining awareness of the breath, locate where you feel the physical aspects of the guilt. (ie, tightness in chest, knot in belly, throat is clenched etc). When you gather this information about the physical aspects of the guilt, note then how you feel about this. (ie, I notice I’m feeling a tightness in my chest and I don’t like it)
c) Name and Relax Into Your Truth – On an inhale, name what you discovered in part (b) and on an exhale say it out-loud to yourself, “I’m feeling a tightness in my chest and I don’t like it.” Pause and notice if the sensation has shifted or relaxed at all. If not, try it again. Usually when we experience a physical sensation of discomfort, we want to run away from it. To sit and pay attention to the subtleties of it and state and own the truth of our feeling, is much more productive way of working with it and helps to create space so it can move through our bodies more quickly.
Step 4 – REPAIR – Taking the necessary steps to offer a THOUGHTFUL apology and offering a reparative gesture are absolutely necessary in healing. Remember guilt is in the eye of the beholder. After you have clarified more thoroughly what the experience of guilt is for you, then you are better informed as to what would be the appropriate step to take in term of apologizing to the other or yourself and forgiving yourself and the other when necessary. Apology and forgiveness are key in recovering from deeply painful hurt and guilt.