01/03/2024

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How to Manage the Stress of Living With Guilt

How to Manage the Stress of Living With Guilt

Living with guilt is almost a contradiction in terms. Are we living if we are feeling so much guilt? Feeling guilty plays a large part in many peoples lives. It can be the underlying influence behind many actions, decisions and choices that we make in our lives.

Many people are raised with standards of behaviour to adhere to and if they slip in any way then feeling guilty can be an important way of pulling them back into line. These are often part of how we were raised. ‘After all I have done for you’ can be a comment from childhood that stays with us throughout our lives.

Or there can be the child given responsibility for a younger sibling who leaves them behind while they go and play with older children. Even if no harm comes to the younger child the sense of having been incredibly evil, selfish and bad at having behaved that way, particularly if the younger sibling picks up on the guilt and reinforces it to their own ends, can stay with them for years.

Some religions incorporate a guilt factor into their ethos. Even thinking inappropriate thoughts can be deemed to be wrong doing and contrition or penance is required to make amends. This background can be compounded by other experiences and learned behaviours, so reinforcing the guilt mentality.

Choosing to do the right thing can often mean doing what we imagine other people expect of us, rather than what we consider to be correct ourselves. This belief is often influenced by several factors: our desire to be seen to do the right thing; to not be judged in a negative way; and also to be accepted as a good and honourable person.

Sometimes we can construct an entire fantasy of what we imagine others expect of us. This can be based on many things, but have no actual roots in reality, just assumption. It is all our own imagination, based on our view of the other person, on what we envisage will be acceptable to them. Often if we discuss some aspect of this assumption with the person, it can be a revelation to discover that they think in a completely different way to how we imagined.

Feeling guilty becomes a problem when it starts to escalate in its influence. When we start to feel that we cannot do something without including the other person, or where everything we do has to revolve around something or someone elses’ needs.

The word ‘balance’ applies here. I often remind my clients of the importance of looking after themselves. When we feel rested, satisfied with our lives, in control with a good work/life balance then everyone we come into contact with benefits. If we are running ourselves ragged, with no time for anything pleasurable for ourselves then stress, frustration, resentment and subsequently ill health can all start to manifest themselves.

A good starting point on the road to recovery from an excess of guilt is to ‘own’ our feelings. Acknowledge that rising feeling of panic or anxiety that starts to occur when feeling guilty begins. Look at what is going on, where have those feelings have come from, what is the story, and is it valid. Often we discover that it is pure emotion – fear of some kind.

Learning to negotiate with ourselves and with the other person can start to introduce a healthier and more balanced relationship. Being firm and saying to ourselves or to the other person ‘ I am doing this for me and then I will do that for you’ can be an important starting point. Explaining and letting the other person see how much happier and enthusiastic you are after some ‘me’ time will help them appreciate that it is a positive step.

But being firm is the key. The other person will have become used to manipulating you to their will. It may take a little while for them to be taught to behave differently, but they need to acknowledge, do they want you with them out of feeling guilty or out of freedom of choice? It is an important first step to take for you, for them, for your relationship and for the rest of your life.