Admittedly there are times when you should feel guilty. For instance, if you cause harm to another person, take something that does not belong to you, or lie about something to get your own way, you should feel guilty because you have done wrong. But this is not the guilt that plagues you, that guilt is understandable as the cause is easily identified. Rather, the guilt that plagues you is an almost constant annoying feeling which continually questions your character, motives, thoughts, actions, and feelings in nearly every circumstance no matter how insignificant.
It becomes this voice in your head challenging you, criticizing you, critiquing you, and condemning you far beyond the expectations of others. And yet it is the fear of not meeting those expectations that ultimately drives the intensity of your guilt to a heightened level of discouragement, detachment, and depression. If this describes you, then know that you are not alone but there are some reasons for why you feel this way and how you can make it stop.
Who does the voice remind you of? This is the first question to ask yourself when you feel guilty. If the voice is your conscience identifying some harm, hurt, or damage you have done to yourself or others, then confess the wrong and seek forgiveness. If instead the voice reminds you of your mother, father, grandparent, teacher, or preacher, then recall the previous time you have heard this voice. Perhaps you were a teen and told that only bad girls call boys first or you were five and told that only bad boys talked back to an adult. Whatever the event, identify it and ask if you still agree with their belief system. As an adult you can make these decisions for yourself now and do not have to carry over the beliefs of the influential people in your life just because they said things were a certain way. One of the reasons for feeling guilty could be that you are still holding onto beliefs that you no longer agree with as an adult just because they come from someone you love. You are not abandoning a person just because you no longer agree with them; rather you are abandoning a belief.
What is the voice really saying? For instance, does the voice use a lot of “you should have”, “you ought to”, “you must”, or “you have to”? These key words are indicators that there is an unmet expectation either you have placed on yourself or someone else has placed on you. Expectations can come in all forms such as the goal to complete a project within a certain time frame, the desire to “out-do” yourself and exceed other’s expectations, or a hope to please someone by your actions. If you did not get the response that you wanted: the person was not overly impressed, you did not get the recognition you hoped for, or the project was not completed, then your response could be intense feelings of guilt. Setting reasonable expectations is the key to disarming this guilty feeling and more importantly learning to be satisfied with a job well done because you believe that it is well done is even better.
Why are you listening to the voice? One of the hardest areas of discipline is not physical but mental. If you have identified the voice as coming from someone else and now see that the voice is setting unrealistic expectations, then why do you continue to listen? While you are responsible for your own actions, beliefs, thoughts and even emotions on occasion, you are not responsible for other people’s actions, beliefs, thoughts and emotions. Everyone is responsible for themselves just as you are responsible for yourself. Trying to take responsibility for others will exhaust you and leave you frustrated as your efforts did not help the other person to move on but created an unnecessary dependency. Your feelings of guilt in this case appear because the very person you were trying to help has not improved but has gotten worse and you feel guilty for their irresponsible behavior. Stop rescuing others, there is only one Savior and it is not you.
Some cultures and religions more than others encourage feelings of guilt as a way to cause you to conform to their arbitrary standards. But this is not the way of Jesus. He did not use guilt to motivate change, rather He used love. And that precisely is the cure for excessive guilt: love. The definition of love is taken from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Love and guilt are not the same thing; rather love can be used to conquer and overcome feelings of guilt.
Repairing, restoring, and rebuilding relationships takes time, energy and effort. If you find yourself needing more help during this process, please call our offices at 407-647-7005 to schedule an appointment. Or you can send me a quick email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Why Some People Feel Guilty Over Everything (christinehammondcounseling.wordpress.com)
- Vows, foolishness, guilt, mercy, freedom: What do these things have in common? (christinehammondms.wordpress.com)