Robin D. Webb
Of the many facets that these influences shape, one of the most important perspectives is a person’s sense of right and wrong. But what does God say in His Word about how He sees us?
In God’s Word, Psalm 139:14 tells us “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.”
Guilty or Not Guilty: What is Guilt?
Guilt is an emotion that is quite hard to pin down and define but it is defined as a feeling of having done something wrong or failed in an obligation. To coerce or manipulate (someone) into feeling guilty, especially in order to induce them to do something.
It is a self-conscious emotion that one has, typically after they have done something wrong, whether intentionally or unintentionally. “Guilt” can also describe a sense of regret or responsibility for actions a person believes were wrong, or over matters that they believe may be their fault, even if they do not bear the responsibility for it.
Because a person’s sense of guilt usually relates to their moral code or personal values or beliefs, people tend to only feel or express guilt over actions that they consider “bad” or “wrong.” One’s sense of “right and wrong” is usually taught and instilled into them through life encounters, personal experiences, or lessons from our families, from our broader culture, and from sources such as our faith about what is considered immoral behavior and what is considered good.
Guilt does have a positive purpose and is not all bad. Although it may feel quite uncomfortable to live with, guilt can even be productive, especially in relationships with others. If you hurt someone by your actions, inactions, or words, it is a good thing to feel guilt.
Feeling bad after making a mistake, can motivate you to change your behavior, and stir you into action such as making an apology, behaving more responsibly, or taking steps to remedy the “wrong” that was done.
Guilt can lead you to make more appropriate choices in the future, which is often good for you, and for the relationships around you. Such changed behavior helps to avoid further harming other people, and it also helps to preserve and solidify binds between people.However, guilt can be unhelpful in some circumstances, especially if the feelings of guilt are unwarranted, manipulated, or excessive. Guilt can cause a person to feel insecure, have diminished self-esteem, and devolve into shame. It is also possible to feel guilty for something that is not your fault, such as when you feel survivor’s guilt.
If tragedy befalls others and you are left unharmed, one may feel like they have done something wrong by surviving when others did not. A student from a war-torn country may struggle to come to terms with their peaceful environment at a university campus while their family is struggling back home. They will feel this guilt even though they bear no responsibility for the circumstances that have brought harm to others.
In other instances, a person with a condition such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may feel guilt for certain intrusive thoughts they may have. A person may also have what is known as a “guilt complex,” which is when a person feels persistent guilt over harm they believe they have caused.
They may not have done anything wrong, but they either live in fear they will, or they believe they are always making mistakes and cannot do things right. Often, a guilt complex becomes associated with feelings of anxiety and shame. A guilt complex may derive from that person’s upbringing – in a situation where they were often disapproved of and seldom praised, one may feel guilty for simply being.
Signs of Guilt
The psychological, social, and emotional symptoms of guilt are often lurking beneath the surface and hidden in one’s mood, behavior, and actions. Symptoms of guilt may often include:
*Being sensitive to the effects of everyone’s actions.
*Being irritable or always on edge
*Feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed by the possibility of making a “wrong” decision
*Being overly clingy or apologetic
*Putting others ahead of yourself to the point where it is detrimental to your wellbeing
*Avoiding expressing your full range of emotions
Symptoms of Guilt may also have other indications. Although some of them may be physical, others are often psychological, social, and emotional. Additional physical symptoms and manifestations include:
*Muscle tension, headaches
*Insomnia or problems with sleeping
*Stomach pain, upset stomach, nausea, or other digestive issues
Dealing with Guilt in a Healthy Way
When you feel guilt, there are a few ways one can deal with it that are healthy and help you to move forward. Just as with any other strong emotion, there is no magic cure for dealing with guilt, and overcoming it takes a lot of consistent emotional work.
You can take time out to reflect on what you are feeling and try to ascertain its source.
Two options to explore and reflect on issues of guilt are prayer and meditation. You can reflect and/or meditate on questions such as, “What is making me feel guilty?” “What actions or thoughts are taking place because of my guilt?”
These processes can help you make a list of the things that are making you feel guilty. With that list in hand, you can take a few appropriate actions to deal with the guilt. If your feelings of guilt are appropriate, you can take steps to remedy the situation.
If you feel guilt after you have done something wrong, that is entirely normal and can often be remedied by asking for forgiveness and taking steps to make up for whatever pain or offense has been caused. You can express your apology by writing a letter to the person who is at the root of your guilt or approaching them in person where possible. You can try and make amends for whatever is making you feel guilty.
While holding yourself accountable for your actions, you should still treat yourself with compassion.
Do not call yourself names, or let your guilt devolve into shame. Acknowledge where you have failed (and recognize where you have not), with an awareness that there is such a thing as excessive guilt.
You can learn from your mistakes. When you do things you should not, instead of wallowing in it, you can take positive steps by learning a lesson from the situation and letting that shape how you move forward from there.
You are not alone in feeling guilty. That should be some comfort if you are finding your guilt overwhelming. Everyone feels guilt over something, though your situation and experience of guilt may be unique. Instead of bottling up your feelings of guilt, you should consider talking with someone about them as a means of dealing with guilt in a productive manner.
Therapy for Dealing with Guilt
One of the most important ways of dealing with guilt is by going to therapy. Therapy can help a person to determine whether any pervasive feelings of guilt are a sign of an underlying mental health condition such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder. Sometimes, the guilt you are feeling is related to constantly thinking about minor failures or other events and experiences that are not actually within your control.
Guilt often persists until we have the chance to make amends for what we have done, but when guilt stems from an action that we cannot remedy, such as when a person feels they may have indirectly caused another’s death, it can have a negative and lasting impact on their life.
In such situations, it may be helpful to reflect on why you may be feeling guilt feelings and emotions with a therapist. In the absence of any diagnosed condition, therapy can often help a person address their guilt and reshape their feelings about what happened, and it can point out if there may be underlying conditions such as Depression and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, grief and loss, or other conditions that involve pronounced feelings of guilt.
If you need help dealing with guilt, feel free to contact me or one of the other practitioners in the counselor directory to schedule an appointment.
“Woman with her Back Turned”, Courtesy of Kayle Kaupanger, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Pensive Man”, Courtesy of Toa Heftiba, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Smiling Girl”, Courtesy of Etty Fidele, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Standing on the Fence”, Courtesy of Michael Rosner-Hyman, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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