Many of us spend too much time feeling guilty. Guilt can trap us in our tracks and stop the process of our emotional growth. Have you ever been on the treadmill and couldn’t get off because it was going too fast? That’s exactly what guilt is like. And this unhealthy guilt accomplishes nothing positive. That is what I am learning first hand. It presses us down into our problems rather than lifting us out of them.
Guilt is an emotional warning sign that most people learn through their normal childhood social development. On the plus side, it’s purpose is to let us know when we have done something wrong, to help us develop a better sense of our behavior and how it affects us and others. It prompts us to re-examine our behavior so that we don’t end up making the same mistake again.
How can we help combat our guilty feelings, and accept them when they’re important, but let them go more easily when they’re not?
Recognize the kind of guilt you have and it’s purpose.
Guilt works best to help us grow and mature when our behavior has been offensive or hurtful to others or ourselves. If we feel guilty for saying something offensive to another person, or for focusing on our careers with an 80-hour work-week over our family, that’s a warning sign with a purpose: change your behavior or else lose your friends or family. We can still choose to ignore our guilt, but then we do so at our own risk. This is known as “healthy” or “appropriate” guilt because it serves a purpose in trying to help redirect our moral or behavior compass.
If you are feeling guilty for eating five chocolate bars in a row, that’s your brain’s way of trying to get the message to you about a behavior you probably already recognize is a little extreme. Such behavior may be self-destructive and ultimately harmful to your health and well-being. So the rational purpose of this guilt is simply to try to convince you to change this behavior.
Healthy guilt is telling us we need to do something different in order to repair relationships or our self-esteem. Unhealthy guilt keeps us stuck and circling around creating the same negative behaviors. Take the time to understand YOUR guilt and either let it go or change.