Dealing With Guilt
Gaining Positive Outcomes From Negative Emotions
Are you feeling guilty about something?
Maybe you made a less than complimentary comment about one team member to another. Or perhaps you're torn between the needs of home and work, and fear that you're not giving enough time or attention to either.
No matter the situation, guilt can be a terrible burden to bear. If not dealt with, it can gnaw at you, and drag you down. You might even avoid others in an attempt to hide your guilt, or act irrationally because of how you feel.
But guilt can also be a very useful emotion. At its most constructive, according to research, it reminds you that you can do better in the future. Experiencing it also shows that you have moral and ethical standards, and empathy.
Sometimes, though, we feel guilt unreasonably, for things that just aren't our fault. This can be damaging if left unchecked. This article talks you through the different kinds of guilt, and explains how to deal with them.
Why Do I Feel Guilty?
Guilt is the emotion we feel if we let ourselves or others down by failing to meet a particular standard. This standard may be widely acknowledged (missing a deadline and delaying a project, say). It can also be self-imposed: a personal perception that you haven't lived up to your values.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of guilt: "healthy" and "unhealthy." Whenever you experience guilt, it's important to recognize which kind you're dealing with. Then you can take appropriate steps to tackle it.
Watch our video to learn how to deal with guilt. See the transcript here.
Recognizing Healthy Guilt
Healthy guilt is proportionate or rational. It's the negative feeling you get when you know that you behaved inappropriately.
You'll experience healthy guilt when you hurt someone or cause a problem that you could have avoided. The guilt is telling you to make amends and to change your behavior.
Experiencing Unhealthy Guilt
Unhealthy guilt is disproportionate, misplaced and irrational. This is where you feel guilty about something, but you're not really to blame, or have no actual control over the situation.
Imagine a friend suffers a serious career setback at the same time as you get a promotion. Despite the joy you feel for your own success, you feel bad for them, and guilty about your own happiness. This guilt isn't rational or healthy, because you can't control the circumstances which have brought it about. It helps no one – and you've done nothing wrong!
An extreme case is "survivor guilt." For example, with the sudden loss of jobs due to COVID-19, some people still working may be feeling survivor guilt.
There's rarely an obvious remedy for unhealthy guilt, because there's little that you can do to improve the situation. The key is to work on your mindset instead.
How to Handle Healthy Guilt
Feeling guilty for doing something bad may be unpleasant. However, when it does occur, you can use it as a springboard to improve your relationships and to inspire personal growth.
Try these tips for managing healthy guilt:
Acknowledge and Apologize
If what you feel guilty for affects another person, say sorry straight away, and make your apology unconditional. Don't try to justify your actions or shift blame to other people, even if they were involved. Just acknowledge the anger, frustration or pain that you've caused.
Simply getting the issue out into the open like this can do a lot to rectify the situation. You may even find that the person is already "over it." But, if the person you've hurt doesn't immediately accept your apology, you have at least acknowledged and taken responsibility for your actions.
Make Amends Quickly
Find a way to put the situation right, and do it as soon as possible. Delaying this step and allowing even healthy feelings of guilt to build up, can lead to anxiety for you, and doesn't do anything to end the pain for the other person.
Make your actions useful to the person you're making amends to. For example, if you forgot to do something important which left a colleague with extra work, offer to tell their manager that you were to blame. Then help out with the work. This will be more valuable than offering to take them out to lunch.
Change Your Behavior
The behavior that makes you feel guilty may be a one-off action, such as saying something insensitive. Or it might be something you do frequently, like poor record-keeping, which causes your colleagues recurring problems.
It's important to take the initiative and address the problem behavior. This could involve anything from improving your time-management or delegation skills, to building a better work-life balance and tackling bad habits.
Making positive changes will improve your interactions with others and help prevent repeated feelings of guilt. Try approaching your manager for help with behaviors you'd like to address, as they may be able to offer training or advice.
Accept and Move On
If you've done everything that you possibly can to make amends, and to prevent the same situation from happening again, let the guilt go. The sooner you put your guilt behind you, the sooner you can focus on more productive activity. Mindfulness can be useful in accepting your feelings and beginning the process of self-forgiveness.
You can also use your experiences to develop Emotional Intelligence. This can help you to understand and regulate your own emotions, so that you can manage your guilt appropriately.
If you struggle to move on, adopt the same approach you'd use with a friend. Odds are, if they apologized for their actions, you'd accept the apology and move on. Treat yourself with the same compassion – otherwise you risk tipping into unhealthy guilt.
How to Deal With Unhealthy Guilt
Unhealthy guilt has none of the benefits that healthy guilt can bring, and it can be hard to overcome. With the right strategies, however, it is possible to manage your feelings and to achieve a more balanced perspective.
Be Realistic About What You Can Control
Start by listing what you can honestly control about a situation. Then list the things that you can't. Keep in mind that you are only responsible for your actions, not for what others think or do. If your second list is longer, your guilt is likely unfounded and unproductive.
Disregard the things that you can't control. Focus on the elements of the situation that you can do something about. And, where appropriate, create a plan to address these. We touched on survivor guilt earlier in this article – and it's likely many people will be familiar with it, with millions globally losing their jobs due to COVID-19.
It's fine to recognize your luck at "surviving" and to feel empathy for others. But you should also acknowledge that feeling guilty about it can be a burden. However, simply trying to snap out of it and move on is being dishonest about your own feelings.
Instead, harness the power of the emotions behind the guilt to do something positive in response. This will bring a sense of control at a time of otherwise feeling powerless. Our article on the Control Influence Accept Model can be useful here.
For example, you could help someone by not avoiding them out of embarrassment, or by spending time listening, and acknowledging their situation. You can make a difference just by asking someone what they want or need.
Whether or not you help anyone else, you can also choose to "seize the day" and make the best of your "luck" – by doing the best job that you can. Finding purpose in the wake of a bad situation turns survivor guilt into gratitude and action.
You can combat constant or repetitive unjustified feelings of guilt by quieting negative self-talk, and seeking other people's opinions for an objective viewpoint. Follow this up by using affirmations to drive home the point that the situation really isn't your fault.
Having established the parts of the situation that you can and can't control, address them with a simple affirmative statement. For example, "I got the promotion ahead of Kyle because I had a better mix of skills and experience," instead of, "I got the promotion ahead of Kyle even though he's been here longer, so I must have been pushy and over-ambitious."
A useful affirmation for a broad range of situations could be, "I did the best I could, with the knowledge I had."
You might feel guilty because you hold yourself to unrealistically high standards. This can result in guilty thoughts about what you haven't done, or haven't done well enough, even if they're not your responsibility. At the same time, you completely overlook what you have done well.
Take time out to reflect and challenge your perfectionist behaviors to refocus your standards more realistically. And remember – nobody is perfect!
It's possible that you feel guilty about a situation because someone else is unaware of the unrealistic pressures that they are putting on you.
Or a person may be purposely manipulating you to make you feel guilty in order to control your behavior. Some people are particularly good at spotting when their co-workers are feeling guilty about something and leveraging this.
Consider the manager who continually asks team members to work long hours "for the good of the team" – and subtly suggests that anyone seeking a good work-life balance is "not a team player." This may trigger guilt, with no good reason behind it.
The negative thinking associated with unhealthy guilt can stem from conditions such as depression, burnout or OCD, and cause severe health problems.
The techniques in this article can have a positive effect on reducing unhealthy guilt, but they are for guidance only. Always take the advice of qualified health professionals if you have concerns over related illnesses, or if constant feelings of guilt are causing significant or persistent unhappiness.
Guilt causes stress and reduces workplace effectiveness. If not addressed, it can seriously hinder relationships and contribute to psychological problems.
There are two main types of guilt. Healthy guilt involves accepting that you've done wrong, and using it as a prompt to improve your relationships and behaviors by:
- Making amends.
- Changing your behavior.
- Accepting your faults and moving on.
Unhealthy guilt is when you feel guilty for things that are imaginary or beyond your control. It can be hard to shift, but you can manage your feelings by:
- Understanding what you can and can't control.
- Challenging your own standards.
- Affirming the positive aspects of the situation.
- Being assertive with those who seek to make you feel guilty.
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