Guilt is an emotion that can play a large role in many relationships. Often it arises when we behave in a way that violates the expectations of others. After we realize that we may have disappointed someone or hurt them, we regret our actions and seek to repair the damage. While this emotion can often be uncomfortable, some psychologists argue that guilt is an evolutionary adaptation designed to improve our relationships. Guilt is often what drives us to apologize after we have done something wrong. It also drives us to be more cooperative, rather than confrontational, because as social beings we often aim to please others. When we fail to do this, it leads to emotional repercussions like guilt; this then motivates us to make future changes in our personal behavior so that we don’t make the same mistakes and experience guilt again.
But because of guilt’s power to influence people’s behavior, it can also be used as a tool for social manipulation. Many people may try guilt tripping others to behave a certain way. And if the person doesn’t conform, the social manipulator will reprimand that person or ostracize them.
It’s important when dealing with guilt to keep a few things in mind:
- Acknowledge guilt when it arises, don’t suppress it or ignore it.
- Try your best to identify the causes and triggers of your guilt.
- Is your guilt irrational or justified?
- If irrational, try to think of the situation in a more sensible way. There are a lot of factors that are outside of our control, yet we feel guilty about them anyway. It’s important to acknowledge that some things aren’t always in our power.
- If justified, determine some things you can do to fix the situation (even just an apology can be really effective).
- If you can’t fix the situation, forgive yourself. We are all susceptible to making mistakes under certain conditions. Everyone.
- Know when someone is just trying to guilt trip you in order to manipulate your behavior or get something out of you.
- Your values will not always align with other people, it’s unrealistic to try to please everyone in all situations. Don’t feel guilty about that.
Some people are emotional abusers, and they may try to constantly make you feel guilty in order to mold you to their will. Beware of these people. As hard as it may be, you have to be willing to cut off relationships like this; you can’t find happiness with someone whose objective requires making you feel bad about yourself. There are points in relationships where your internal values are sometimes more important than others. You were not born on this planet to be someone’s puppet or slave.
At the same time, sometimes it’s important to feel some temporary pain from your mistakes. Only people without any sense of empathy never feel any kind of guilt. But some guilt every now and then is actually a sign of mental health, because it shows you acknowledge other people’s feelings when you make a mistake (and, as I mentioned earlier, we all make mistakes every now and again).
I believe the big idea here is that guilt, like most (if not all) emotions, is a valuable signal informing us on how we should respond to our relationships in the future. If we acknowledge that we’ve done something wrong, we should be willing to express genuine guilt over what we did. And often by feeling free to express our emotions, we have an easier time finally letting go of them. On the other hand, when we deny our guilt, run away from it, or suppress it, then not only do we fail to learn from our experience, but we also set ourselves up to continue the same mistakes (which may lead to an explosion of even MORE guilt in the long-term).
From a general standpoint, processing any emotion is like digesting food. It starts with consumption of the raw material that we take into our body or mind. Then comes a digestion process where the material gets passed through our system and nutrients get extracted. Finally, once all the beneficial elements of the material have been extracted, it’s time for the waste material to be released. In the same way, sometimes an emotion like guilt needs to be digested (rumination literally means “to chew over”) before it can be released. But if we try to skip the digestion process, if we ignore or supress our emotions and don’t reflect on them from time to time, we can become emotionally constipated (and mentally unstable).
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