Many people feel marred by guilt feelings that are preventing them from fully enjoying their lives.
Sometimes, of course, guilt is a useful signal to ourselves that we have done something we can't really be proud of or have done something we shouldn't have. It allows us to to seek forgiveness and correct a wrong. Without this kind of experience, we would not be able to become remorseful, and would end up not caring about other people's needs, thoughts, and feelings.
When Does Guilt Become Excessive?
Many times, however, guilt becomes attached to a wide variety of healthy feelings, thoughts, or behaviors, and starts to work against us rather than for us.
We may for example feel like we have done something wrong after having sex, or we may feel like we made a transgression by standing up for ourselves when we really needed to.
Because the feeling of being guilty of a wrong is so unpleasant, it is likely that we end up avoiding situations that would make us feel this way, or that we become apologetic and remorseful in situations where we should really stand our ground.
In this way, our guilt feelings can begin to control us, and can make us cut off pieces of ourselves and live restricted lives.
The Woman Who Was Consumed by Guilt:
One woman, for example, had the propensity to feel guilty about asking for what she needed in her marriage. She would not be able to enjoy a movie if her husband didn't pick it, and would not be able to tell him "no", if he asked her to take on responsibilities, which severely encroached on her other commitments and plans. On her birthday when she chose a restaurant for her birthday celebration, she could not enjoy the dinner because she was too worried about others not liking the restaurant she picked. In situation after situation, she would therefore avoid making a decision, or avoid telling others no.
At the end of the day she paid for her guilt-ridden existence by feeling "trapped" in her obligations and responsibilities. Her conscience had turned against her. Rather than being a source of good, it had become a cross to bear. She was living a life of repentance of sins she had never committed and had become imprisoned by the prohibition against making any demands or stating any wishes. Being herself had become guilt-inducing.
In this situation the woman's guilt had become "neurotic".
Neurotic guilt is guilt that has stopped serving as a useful moral compass, and has started to become aggression turned against oneself.
The voices of adults we internalized when growing up, and which helped shape us into a moral human being with empathy and consideration for others, has in these instances begun to over-function.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is in its essence the experience of remorse for having done harm to others by our actions, feelings, or thoughts.
In a supportive environment, we learn that even though we hit our little sister, we can seek forgiveness and can repair the situation. But if for some reason, the repair was not an option, or if others seemed to be excessively hurt by our expression of a thought, or our display of a particular emotion, the experience of guilt can find no release, and instead become traumatic.
One woman expressed how her father during a time of depression, had told her that the reason why he became suicidal is that he thought she did not love him. The woman internalized this message as a perpetual guilt about her actions and omissions. She started to feel that there was something destructive about expressing her needs or feelings, and that she had the power to destroy the people she loved, by the mere expression of her thoughts.
Other situations that can lead to excessive guilt are early messages that you will go to hell, or that mommy and daddy won't love you anymore, or any other message that communicates the lack of possibility of redemption, or the withdrawal of needed love and affection. The guilt in these situations can become overwhelming, and so aversive that life itself, with its spontaneous desires and wishes, has to be inhibited.
The Cure for Excessive Guilt:
In the examples stated above, guilt in its natural state has really been corrupted by the experience of intense anxiety and fear, or by excessive pain, or even self-loathing.
To remove the excessive guilt is therefore to come to terms with these feelings or fears. In many situations, guilt or the anxiety associated with asserting one's needs or wishes, are really rooted in a fear of one's own aggression and the erroneous belief that there is something destructive about one's needs and feelings.
Only when a person gets in touch with these underlying realizations and learns to undo the false impressions of their needs and feelings, can these feelings be transformed. A person can then be released from the chains of their excessive guilt and find peace and comfort in being who they are.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist in Houston, TX. I help people undo negative learning from their past that has led to excessive guilt, shame, or anxiety.