Is Your Guilt True or False?
Throughout our life and interactions with others we have difficult emotions that arise. One of these most difficult emotions is guilt. At times, we use guilt to motivate us. We use statements such as ‘I should do better”, “I should work harder”, “I should be a better friend or partner”. These statements unfortunately do the opposite of motivation. They weigh us down with expectations that hurt us and actually make it more difficult to function “better”.
What these statements do is bring on tremendous amounts of guilt and pressure. What we need to determine is this: is our guilt true or false? By answering this simple question below you will be able to answer for yourself if your guilt is true or false.
Have you broken a legal or your own moral code?
If your answer is yes then your guilt is true
If your answer is no then your guilt is false
Let me explain these in greater detail. There are times that we break a legal or our own moral code. If I were to do a hit and run on a car when I’m leaving a parking lot or steal something then I should feel guilty. This is what we call true guilt. As discussed in a previous blog (link it here) I discuss how emotions are a signal to us. True guilt, signals to us that our behaviour is off and we need to correct it to prevent further harm to self and others. As painful as true guilt is, we need it in our lives to steer us back to moral behaviour.
However, often we feel guilt when we shouldn’t. We call that false guilt. In the question above we are able to determine quite quickly that our guilt is false. If we have not broken a legal or our moral code then we should not feel guilty. It is a manipulation of guilt against us. Sometimes we learn false guilt from people who put expectations on us and sometimes it develops because we don’t pay attention to our emotional signals and confuse it for another emotion that we are not comfortable with. This false guilt makes it difficult for us to function. If left for too long false guilt can turn into low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and even overwhelming anger.
Now that you know whether your guilt is true or false what do we do to move from it? If your guilt is true it signals to us that our behaviour needs to change. But what if our guilt is false? How do we deal with that? Steps to take include:
- Acknowledging that you feel an emotion
- Ask yourself the quick question above
- Reasoning and processing with yourself to understand why do I feel this false guilt
- Watch for signs of how this is causing low self-esteem, depression, anxiety or overwhelming anger so that false guilt doesn’t get a full hold on us.
Once we can determine the root of our false guilt we can then move away from it. And when we move away from it, such freedom comes into our lives that we are no longer held down, and we can live our lives with such a sense of peace that we did not even know was possible.
Jenn Betts is a Registered Provisional Psychologist with the Psychologists’ Association of Alberta and specializes in the areas of anger, guilt and self esteem as well as many others. For more information on Jenn, her work, or other articles she’s written for Living Well click here to link to her full bio page.