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Those of us who suffer from mental illness, chronic illness and other hidden disabilities often feel guilty about our afflictions. We worry that we are letting people down, failing at our jobs, not doing well enough in our relationships and so on. I know that when I first got diagnosed with anxiety and depression, one of the overriding emotions I dealt with at the time was feeling like a failure. So, how to deal with guilt?
It’s important to note though that the people around us – the ones that truly love us, completely understand that we are going through something difficult. They don’t feel like we are a burden, or that we have let them down. When I have spoken to friends and family about my guilty feelings, they generally just wish that I would speak to them about it, so that they can support me, instead of shutting myself away and beating myself up!
In this post, we are going to look at why we feel guilty about something that is out of our control; how guilt and shame differ and how guilt actually affects us in our daily lives. We will also explore what we can do about it.
Why do we feel guilty?
For many of us who suffer from any type of mental illness, anxiety goes with the territory. Along with this comes a host of issues to do with our thoughts, feelings and emotions. We have a tendency to overthink things, ‘read peoples minds’ and catastrophise. We assume things without any evidence, and we are our own worst critic. So it stands to reason that when we can’t face a social gathering, we feel relief when we cancel; but then we feel guilty for letting that person down. We play out conversations in our minds, where the party host no longer wants us in their lives because we let them down so much. We feel that we are not good enough friends, partners, or parents. It becomes a vicious circle. The more we avoid situations, the more we feel guilty about them, and we avoid them even more.
Are guilt and shame the same thing?
Although guilt and shame often go hand in hand, they are not the same thing. Guilt is an emotion we feel at the hurt feelings of others, whereas shame is how we feel about ourselves. So if you cancel that party we were talking about, you feel guilty that you have let your friend down. But you feel ashamed of yourself for not facing the party.
Guilt is the problem, shame is a reaction to that problem.
How does guilt affect us?
Everybody has moments in their life when they feel guilty for something they said or did, or didn’t say or do. But for sufferers of mental illness, we often make it worse than it needs to be. We tend to agonise over the thing we feel we did wrong, for weeks, months or even years.
We make it bigger than it is and tell ourselves that we are awful people.
But the truth is, while we beat ourselves up, the person we feel we have wronged will have forgotten about it long before we will – if they even notice it at all!
This cycle of negativity goes on, with us in the eye of the storm, making ourselves feel worse and worse. It encourages our anxiety, depression, frustration, lack of sleep and much more. Learning how to deal with guilt will help to change all that.
When is my guilt a problem?
Guilt becomes a problem when you let it take over your life. If you do something you feel is wrong to someone, the best thing to do is to talk to them, and explain your reasons. Chances are, they will put your mind at ease.
When you let it get hold of you, and stop you from doing things you enjoy, it’s a problem.
Work on your feelings of guilt and make it a thing that passes you by.
How do I deal with my guilt?
- Question whether your guilt is appropriate for the situation – if you have hurt someone, guilt is there to tell you so; and to make you act on it. You should talk to that person and explain why you did what you did, and apologise. If, however, you are feeling guilty about not spending as much money on a family member for their birthday due to working fewer hours, that is not appropriate. It’s not your fault and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it
- Don’t let it take you over, make changes – if your guilt is appropriate, make changes to rectify it. Apologise if needed, change your work pattern, arrange to catch up at another time if you have had to cancel an arrangement. If it’s not appropriate then it’s important to analyse why you feel guilty. Speak to people involved to try to help you understand how they actually feel, as opposed to how you think they feel. Don’t assume you know how someone else is feeling.
- Accept you did something wrong, but then move on – no matter whether your guilt is appropriate or not, if you feel guilty, accept it. But move on. You cannot change what’s been done, it’s in the past. Move into the future knowing you won’t do it again.
- Learn from it – guilt can help you grow. By learning not to do the things that make you feel guilty, you change your behaviour to one that doesn’t make you feel guilty. This is how we learn right from childhood
- Understand that no one is perfect – you are human. You will make mistakes. That doesn’t make you a terrible person, unlovable or nasty. It just makes you human. People you care about make mistakes too. You forgive them and move on. Do the same for yourself.
The main point is that guilt in the proper context is there to guide you. To make you a more socially acceptable human being. While it’s ok to feel guilt if you have genuinely done something to hurt someone, letting it take over your life is self-destructive and bad for you. Take the time to analyse whether your guilt is warranted and deal with it. Don’t let it fester until you can’t cope with it.
Have you had to deal with feelings of guilt? How do you get past it? Let me know in the comments below!