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Feeling guilty from time to time is normal. Not spending enough time with our children or elderly parents may make us feel guilty. So, for some people, so does saying no to virtually any request from anybody. In its normal, healthy form guilt is a sense of sadness or remorse because of something that we have done or not done. This is because we believe that we have caused harm or done something that goes against our moral values. Depending on a person’s values and emotional processing one person will feel guilty about something and another person will not. Sometimes guilt is normal and healthy and all too often guilt is irrational and a mental health issue.

Normal and Appropriate Guilt

Guilt is a good thing. It generally helps keep people from engaging in antisocial behavior. Guilt tells us that we have a conscience and the mental capacity to discern right from wrong. It teaches us lessons and helps us keep from making the same mistakes again and again. Guilt helps us learn and improve our behavior. This is totally different from continual guilt that is not centered on specific things that one would normally regret. People who are prone to continual guilt typically have an unusually strong emotional connection with others and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. Although this sort of guilt is in the normal spectrum it can be excessive and an emotional burden.

Normal and Appropriate Guilt
Normal and Appropriate Guilt

Guilt That Is Not Rational

There is a line that we cross when we begin to feel guilt about things for which we bear no responsibility. We may choose to contribute money or our time to help people in a foreign country who are in need but to believe that we somehow were the cause of their suffering is generally incorrect. Similarly, we may be partially at fault for something but find that we are exaggerating the degree of harm in our mind which is also irrational. There appear to be links between excessive and inaccurately directed guilt and various mental health issues.

Irrational Guilt Cause and Effect

Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, dysphoria or a feeling of continual dissatisfaction, and others are commonly associated with irrational feelings of guilt. Sometimes the mental health issue is what drives the guilt and sometimes the guilt worsens a pre-existing mental health issue. Such guilt issues commonly revolve around relationships and focus on being a burden on loved ones or those in one’s circle of friends and acquaintances. Either way the result is a depressed mood, low self-esteem, poor sleep, constant stress, poor concentration and inefficiency at work as well as other tasks in life.

Irrational Guilt Cause and Effect
Irrational Guilt Cause and Effect

How to Fight Excessive Guilt

There are some practical things that a person can do if their life is consumed by an excessive sense of guilt. In simple cases it works to just distract oneself. Read a book, go for a walk, get some fresh air, or listen to music. Getting one’s mind off the subject of the guilt and onto anything else can be effective in some cases.

When simple distraction does not work, being proactive can work. Even if you know that your sense of guilt is out of proportion to reality, taking steps to make amends can help reduce that sense of guilt. If you believe that you have harmed someone by your action or inaction, do what seems right to make amends. However, remember that the amends that you make need to be consistent with the degree of harm that you believe you have done.

Mindfulness via meditation is useful in dealing with excessive guilt. Focusing on breathing and paying attention to the moment helps many people put issues in life in better perspective and includes the degree of guilt that one ought to feel in any given situation. This can be especially useful when a person is being manipulated by another who uses guilt as a tool or weapon to control others.

Bottom Line When Dealing With Guilt

None of us is perfect and none of us ever will be. There comes a time when we need to view guilt over past mistakes as excess baggage and let it go. Mulling over things that you cannot change and especially things that happened years ago does no one any good and especially does you no good.

Beating yourself up over perceived flaws based on past actions or past mistakes is often a form of self-punishment. There comes a point when a person needs to ask themself why they need to inflict harm on themselves and simply quit doing it.

One thing to keep in mind when one feels the need to right an old wrong is something from the steps that members of Alcoholics Anonymous follow. Do not seek to make amends for past wrongs when doing so will merely inflict more harm and pain on the person that you harmed in the first place.

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