Getting Rid Of The Guilts

If you’re beating yourself up about absolutely everything, maybe it’s time for a detox of your emotions.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
If you’re beating yourself up about absolutely everything, maybe it’s time for a detox of your emotions.
Corbis/Click Photos
Corbis/Click Photos

Crap. It’s Sunday night and you realise you forgot to call your mum. Again. She probably thinks you’re dead. Or worse, a bad daughter. You can’t call her now, though – it’s too late. Best just to lie in bed and think about all of the other ways you’ve let people, or yourself, down. Like, that time when you had to cancel dinner with your best friend because work was hectic and you needed a night to yourself. You also disappointed your boss because you left work on time for once to fit in a gym session.

Speaking of which, you rarely work out any more and you’re running on coffee, pastries and zero energy, and are too tired to have sex, so obviously you’re a terrible girlfriend as well as a bad friend/ employee/daughter. Feel any better? Nope, didn’t think so.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

Guilt is an emotional state that most of us experience, and the effects can be worse than just lying awake at night. Clinical psychologist Mai Dao says guilt can not only become immobilising, it can interfere with our decision-making skills, make us oversensitive, mislead or misdirect us, and make us more prone to depression or anxiety.

So if it makes us feel so awful about ourselves, why do we continue to persist in feeling guilty? “People are often prone to feeling guilty when they are constantly engaged in thinking things like ‘I should have done something’ or ‘I must do something’,” explains Mai. “Engaging in such thinking patterns causes people to put unreasonable demands and pressure on themselves and creates unrealistic expectations.”

No stranger to the guilts is 27-yearold public servant Nicole, who says she feels it about a whole bunch of different things. “I feel guilty about taking time off work, even if I have leave available, because I don’t want my colleagues to feel they have to cover me, even though I happily cover them,” she says. “I feel guilty about partying with friends if my boyfriend isn’t there, even if it was his choice not to attend. I feel guilty about not being very healthy and then I get depressed and do things that aren’t good for me like drinking excessively and eating delicious, but terrible, food. This leads to more guilt... and more drinking and eating... You get the picture.”

The fair majority of what Nicole is experiencing can actually be classified as unhelpful or unhealthy guilt (and, yes, there is healthy guilt, but more on that later). Mai explains guilt can be considered unhealthy when it makes us feel negative for little legitimate reason. “Guilt can be thought of as a redundant emotion when we persistently focus on certain behaviour that doesn’t need reexamining or change.”

She says unhealthy guilt can arise from not meeting our own expectations (“I should have gone to the gym today”) and also not meeting the different expectations of others. “In the latter case, it’s important to acknowledge that in the real world, we sometimes don’t possess all the personal resources like time, money or emotional space to meet both our own needs and the needs of other people around us. You are allowed to be self-compassionate and communicate your needs openly and assertively to others.”

Breaking The Cycle

When faced with niggling guilt, shame and stress over situations that don’t warrant it, Mai suggests asking the following question: does the guilt lead me to positive action and change, or does it overwhelm and control me? If your answer falls into the second camp, Mai says to let it all out. “Talking to a friend can help you process your emotions and expose yourself to other ways of looking at the issue,” she says. “If that doesn’t help, talking to a therapist can enable you to learn other strategies to reach a state of selfforgiveness and move away from unhealthy or unhelpful guilt. Writing about the situation can also help you emotionally process it and help you let it go.” Mai adds that mindfulness exercises can also help refocus your attention on the present moment rather than going back over the past or unnecessarily worrying about the future.

Unhelpful guilt over little things is one thing, but feeling ashamed that you’ve genuinely upset someone because of poor behaviour is another thing altogether. “When guilt alerts us to something we need to do a little differently to enable us to have healthier relationships, lifestyles or self-esteem, it is considered healthy,” says Mai. “It can trigger you to notice your unhelpful or unreasonable behaviour, motivate you to take action to repair a relationship or an issue with yourself (usually to do with your health) and make benefi cial changes to your life so that the behaviour doesn’t happen again.”

If you feel guilty about having upset someone, Mai says you fi st have to accept that you cannot change the past, before making amends. “Validate the other person’s feelings, off er a sincere and timely apology, and offer constructive suggestions about how you might change your behaviour to overcome the issue. This will help mend the relationship and relieve your guilt.”

As for Nicole, she knows she should ease up on herself. “I can’t control other people’s expectations of me, but I can learn to be more honest about saying no to things and not over-committing myself,” she says. “And the guilt about my health is there for a reason – I know I need to get on top of it so I can really start feeling better about myself.”

At the end of the day, we’re only human and, hey, if your guilt gets really bad, just remember there’s a good chance your mum forgot to call her parents every now and then, too.

Do You Ever Get The Guilts?

Thinking about all the “should-haves” in life can sometimes cause us to put unreasonable demands and pressure on ourselves. Before you jump aboard the Guilt Express, ask yourself: how helpful is it for you to be thinking like this? How realistic are your thoughts and expectations? How might someone else view the situation? In the end, nine times out of 10, there’s no real use for having feelings of guilt.

Things you should absolutely not feel guilty about, ever:

•Putting your own emotional needs before someone else’s.

•Eating one more Snickers bar (it’s not your fault they’re delicious).

•Speaking kindly, but honestly, about a rather sticky situation.

•When you find yourself fantasising about being Liam Hemsworth’s wife during working hours.

•Making mistakes, particularly when they enable you to learn and improve. You’re human.