Dawn Cove Abbey
Deerfield, (Yarmouth County) Nova Scotia, Canada, Rev: 2009-2020
GUILT - the paralyzing emotion
|An introduction to
Appropriate and Inappropriate Guilt:
what it is, and how to deal with it
|People who really want to heal,
will find a way;
those who aren't ready yet,
will find an excuse.
Inappropriate Guilt: taking-on ownership of someone else's actions. This is where we are left feeling, or are
made to feel, by others that we are responsible for something we actually did not do or say. It means others are
trying to shift their blame onto you, and avoiding responsibility and ownership of their actions. We don’t own
inappropriate guilt, nor are we responsible for it. Whatever was said or done was their choice. It is a form of guilt
that is not normal, good or natural: it is extremely common. It leaves you with paralyzing indecision!
Because of that, and because that is so common, there are many people who feel guilty most of the time. They
spend much of their time doing things they don't really want to do, just to avoid feeling guilty: except it never quite
works for them. This is because it wasn’t theirs to “fix” in the first place (see Fixer Role). It's also a form
of Codependency (very unhealthy)
There are different reasons why we feel guilty.
We feel guilty (appropriately) when we have done something that violates one of our own (or society's) ethical or
moral values. As a result, we hold ourselves responsible for something we did or said: accepting ownership and
responsibility for our actions (that is "appropriate" guilt). It shows responsibility and ownership.
From childhood on we learned beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, and integrated those beliefs into who
we are: we accepted them without actually thinking about them. Our families—parents, grandparents, and
siblings—along with school, friends, and other life experiences, all contributed to this process. Because of that
complex history, we may not be aware exactly how we come to believe a particular act is right or wrong: it’s
unconscious – and can be very harmful to us. We are not responsible for other people's choices!
Yet, some of our sense of guilt comes from being made to feel as if it is we who are solely and choices of other
people (that's inappropriate guilt). We need to remember that their choices aren’t ours to make. It isn’t our
responsibility to “fix” the consequences of someone else’s choices. We are not responsible for the choices they
make – so to avoid guilt, don’t accept that responsibility or ownership. When we find excuses for their choices,
and try to “fix” the consequences for them, we are engaging in a denial-enabling situation: at worst, we
become codependent. We all have to learn to accept that we have to live with choices others make – whether we
like those choices, approve of them, or whatever.
How do others play on your feelings of guilt?
People can and sometimes try to make You feel responsible for, and take ownership of their actions words or
failures. They will (try to):
* Make you believe they will suffer greatly if you do not respond positively to their request(s).
* Call on your guilt to respond to their requests, even when it means violating your rights.
* Respond to your irrational self by reinforcing your irrational thinking, giving you a sense of blame,
for past, present, or future actions. * Build up a verbal or imagined scenario that portrays you at
fault for inaction, thus guaranteeing your sense of guilt and your willingness to do anything to alleviate it.
* Accuse you of misdeeds, words, or actions to arouse your sense of guilt and make you believe
you are the one with a problem in an interpersonal relationship difficulty. (This effectively takes the pressure
off of them.)
* Reinforce your negative self-perceptions, encouraging you to be guilt ridden and self-judgmental
for their benefit.
* Build a case with moral absolutes to convince you of the "right way'' to do things, avoiding that
negative feeling of guilt for themselves.
* Set up situations for you in which you will believe your alternatives are limited to that which
results in the least sense of guilt.
* Feign or fake hardship, illness, discomfort, unhappiness, incompetence, or other negative behavior to
arouse your sense of guilt and have you take over those tasks, or duties bringing imagined negative
consequences for them.
* Threaten negative consequences, like going to jail, to the hospital, to the juvenile detention center, failing
school, dying, or divorcing you. This manipulation uses your guilt to benefit them.
|Guilt was never a rational thing; it distorts all the faculties of the human mind,
it perverts them, it leaves a person no longer in the free use of their reason,
it puts them into confusion. ~Edmund Burke (paraphrased)
* Make you become over-responsible, striving to make life "right.'' You overwork. You over-give of yourself. You
are willing to do anything in your attempt to make everyone happy.
* Make you over conscientious. You fret over every action you take as to its possible negative consequence to
others, even if this means that you must ignore your needs and wants.
* Make you over sensitive. You see decisions about right and wrong in every aspect of your life and become
obsessed with the tenuous nature of all of your personal actions, words, and decisions. You are sensitive to
the cues of others where any implication of your wrong doing is intimated.
* Immobilize you. You can become so overcome by the fear of doing, acting, saying, or being "wrong'', that you
eventually collapse, give in, and choose inactivity, silence, and the status quo.
* Interfere in your decision making. It is so important to always be "right'' in your decisions that you become
unable to make a decision lest it be a wrong one.
* Be hidden by the mask of self denial. Because it is less guilt inducing to take care of others first, instead of
yourself, you hide behind the mask of self denial. You honestly believe it is better to serve others first, unaware
that "guilt'' is the motivator for such "generous'' behavior.
* Make you ignore the full array of emotions and feelings available to you. Overcome by guilt or the fear of it, you
can become emotionally blocked or closed off. You are able neither to enjoy the positive fruits of life nor
experience the negative aspects.
* Be a motivator to change. Because you feel guilt and the discomfort it brings, you can use it as a barometer of
the need to change things in your life and rid yourself of the guilt.
* Be a mask for negative self belief. You may actually have low self-esteem, but claim the reason for your
negativity is the overwhelming sense of guilt you experience.
* Mislead or misdirect you. Because many irrational beliefs lie behind guilt, you may be unable to sort out your
feelings. It is important to be objective with yourself when you are experiencing guilt; be sure that your decisions
are based on sound, rational thinking.
What irrational beliefs or negative self-scripts are involved in guilt?
* do not deserve to be happy.
* I am responsible for my family's (spouse's) happiness.
* There is only one "right'' way to do things.
* It's bad to feel hurt and pain.
* My children should never suffer in their childhood like I did in mine.
* My kids should have more material things than I did.
* It is my fault if others in my life are not happy.
* If my kids fail in any way, it's my responsibility.
* It is wrong to be concerned about myself.
* People are constantly judging me, and their judgment is important to me.
* It is important to save face with others.
* It is wrong to accept the negative aspects of my life without believing that I am responsible for them myself.
* I am responsible if either positive or negative events happen to the members of my family.
* I must not enjoy myself during a time when others expect me to be in mourning, grief, or loss.
* You must never let down your guard; something you're doing could be evil or wrong.
* I must always be responsible, conscientious, and giving to others.
* How others perceive me is important as to how I perceive myself.
* No matter what I do, I am always wrong.
* I should never feel guilt.
* If you feel guilt, then you must be, or have been wrong.
Dealing with Guilt – appropriately:
* Exercises to determine how you might go about dealing with guilt (The Abbey offers Workshops)
* Pointers and steps to take to dealing with your guilt (if appropriate). Counselling available.
Dealing with The Source of Guilt
To understand any strong, troublesome emotion of guilt, you need to see clearly three parts of your experience:
*The actual upsetting physical-social situation and event, what you did, and what others did, and the outcomes
* The thoughts, wishful images, and self-talk you had before, during, and after the event, but especially just before
feeling bad. This includes what you had originally hoped would happen and how you now wish it had worked out.
* Your emotional reactions about or to the event and the outcomes.
Inappropriate Guilt Generating Thoughts:
Here are the common, fairly obvious inappropriate/irrational ideas that create unwanted emotions:
* Everyone should love and approve of me (if they don't, I feel awful and unlovable).
* I should always be competent, able, successful, and "on top of things" (if I'm not, I'm an inadequate,
incompetent, hopeless failure).
* People who are evil and bad should be punished severely (and I have the right to get very upset if they aren't
stopped and made to "pay the price").
* When things do not go the way I wanted and planned, it is terrible and I am, of course, going to get very
disturbed. I can't stand it!
* External events, such as other people, a screwed-up society, or bad luck, cause most of my unhappiness.
Furthermore, I don't have any control over these external factors, so I can't do anything about my depression or
* When the situation is scary or going badly, I should, and can't keep from worrying all the time.
* It is easier for me to overlook, or avoid thinking about, tense situations than to face the problems and take the
responsibility for correcting the situation.
* I need someone--often a specific person--to be with and lean on (I can't do everything by myself).
* Things have been this way so long, I can't do anything about these problems now.
* When my close friends and relatives have serious problems it is only right and natural that I get very upset too.
*I don't like the way I'm feeling but I can't help it. I just have to accept it and go with my feelings.
* I know there is an answer to every problem. I should find it (if I don't, it will be awful).
These can, and will, ruin your mental, emotional and spiritual inner being – they will
destroy happiness in life for you. You are NOT responsible for everything that happens.
Healthy Reaction Thoughts – appropriate (see below, as well as Workshops for exercises to learn
the steps) Healthy reactions employ rational ideas to accept reasonable bad feelings, and to reduce the
sources of inappropriate guilt generators.
Dealing with a feeling of guilt responsibly and constructively – Workshop Topics
When you feel guilty (responsible), you can clarify the situation for yourself, and make it more
manageable using the following exercise which consists of posing and answering four questions:
1. What makes me feel guilty - responsible?
2. What value do I feel I have violated?
3. What am I asking myself to do to fulfill this value?
4. What is it I really need to do to fulfill this value? Continue to reject ownership of things you did not do,
Suggested steps to overcome guilt
Step 1: You can recognize the role guilt is playing in your life by choosing a current problem and answering
the following questions in your journal:
* What problem is currently troubling me?
* Who is responsible for the problem?
* Whose problem is it, really?
* What did I do to make this problem worse for myself?
* How much guilt do I feel about this problem?
* How much does the guilt I experience exaggerate or exacerbate my problem?
** If I felt no more guilt what would my problem look like then?
If the answer to question "**'' is that your problem can be solved by reducing guilt, go to Step 2.
Step 2: Redefine your problem with the absence of guilt as an issue.
In answering the questions in Step 1 you recognized that guilt was preventing resolution of the problem.
To redefining your problem, answer the following questions in your journal:
* How insurmountable is the problem?
* Is this problem an interpersonal, or intrapersonal (inner) problem?
* If it is interpersonal: Can I help the other person and myself to set aside guilt and resolve this problem?
* If it is intrapersonal: Can I set aside guilt or the fear of it and resolve this problem?
* Does this problem have more than one solution? Can others and myself experience satisfaction, comfort, and
resolution with a minimum of debilitating guilt?
* Whose problem is it, really?
* Is it my problem or another(s)?
* Am I taking on another's responsibility?
* Am I trying to keep another from experiencing pain, hardship, or discomfort?
Step 3: If the problem is really someone else's, give the problem back to the person(s) to solve
and to deal with. If the problem is yours, go to Step 4.
Step 4: You must confront the real or imagined guilt or fear of guilt preventing you from either handing the
problem back to the person(s) whose problem it really is (Step 3) or from handling the problem on your own.
Consider the following:
* What fears are blocking me at this moment from taking the steps I need to resolve this problem?
* What are the irrational beliefs behind these fears?
* Refute the irrational beliefs
* Initiate a program of self-affirmation as presented in the "Self-Affirmations''
* Use an imagery scenario with "guilt'' as an object you packaged in a nice box, brought to a mountain top and
thrown off a cliff for good.
* Affirm for yourself that:
* You deserve to solve this problem.
* You deserve to be good to yourself
* You deserve to have others be good to you, too!
Step 5: If your guilt is not resolved after completing Steps 3 and/or 4, return to Step 1 and begin again.
Guilt is one of the most misunderstood and mis-used words (and concepts and "actions/behaviour") in our lives.
The way it is, and has been used, has turned it into two different things: both a "burden" and a "weapon". And
therefore, it has become something negative, and dysfunctional that many, if not most, people, experience and
deal with much of their lives.
To really understand just how deeply dysfunctional and misplaced "Guilt" really is, due to its misuse, we need to
look briefly at the origin and history of the word, and its subsequent evolution into its current use in our
shaming-blaming dysfunctional cultures).
The word "guilt" traces back to Old English - where it was used both as a noun and a verb. In its noun form it
; crime, sin, moral defect, failure of duty, an offense, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or
penal law; culpability". This is more or less "appropriate" guilt. Which expands into: "he admitted his guilt": as
in "a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined; in other
words, accepting ownership of words and/or deeds. This is also an "appropriate" usage of "guilt".
And in its verb form it meant; "to influence someone by appealing to his sense of guiltiness (to accept the
ownership"", which is still in the "appropriate" domain. However, it is far more commonly mis-used, either by
dwelling/focussing on the guilt, or to shift blame from themselves onto another person - as in, "he/she tried to
guilt me into pleasing or appeasing them", or "he/she was laying a guilt trip on me"; in other words, in its verb
form, guilt is frequently/often used as manipulation; which is the inappropriate form. Of course, taking ownership
(pleading guilty to an act, or words) is considered to be an appropriate, "correct" action - if it is sincere and
authentic, in all cultures.
To sum up the above: in a blaming, shaming culture such as the one we live in, there are two forms of guilt, so to
speak, to lead into the dilemma of often taking on guilt and blame for things that are not theirs in the first place.
Appropriate Guilt: is taking ownership of our actions. This is where we accept the deed's (or words') ownership:
we own it, we are responsible for it - it was our choice: appropriate guilt is natural, good and normal, because it
shows a healthy sense of responsibility and taking ownership (or as it is usually called, “blame”). To take
Personal Ownership is being, and holding yourself fully accountable for results that matter to you, and for which
you are responsible: you take full responsibility for your actions and accept accountability for the results
It is about controlling events rather than being controlled by events. Learning how to take Personal Ownership
requires a transformation in thinking; it involves responsibility, choices and consequences, assertiveness and
self-worth (self esteem) etc. Wholeness is a necessary part of being fully human, and by nurturing the inner child
with love and listening, as a parent would do, balance of mind, body and spirit can be created – through taking
ownership and control.
Technically, Guilt is "proven", or admitted, legitimate ownership of, or responsibility for, some action, deeds or
words. However, in a fear and shame based culture, it is often used to place undeserved "blame" for things that
are not actually yours to take ownership of. That is inappropriate guilt. To give in to that, creates irrational beliefs
and mental anguish.
Guilt is about:
Feeling of responsibility for negative circumstances that have befallen yourself or others, if applicable. Feeling
of regret for your real or imagined misdeeds, both past and present. A sense of remorse for thoughts, feelings, or
attitudes that were or are negative, uncomplimentary, or non-accepting concerning yourself or others. Feeling of
obligation for not pleasing, not helping, or not placating another. Feeling of bewilderment and lack of balance for
not responding to a situation in your typical, stereotype manner.
Feeling of loss and shame for not having done or said something to someone who is no longer available to you.
Accepting of responsibility for someone else's misfortune or problem because it bothers you to see that person
suffer. Motivator to amend all real or perceived wrongs. Strong moral sense of right and wrong that inhibits you
from choosing a "wrong'' course of action; however, you assign your own definitions to the words. Driving force
or mask behind which irrational beliefs hide. These allow you to assess whether or not they are accurate, and
whether or not you are responsible, or need to take ownership: in other words, to discern whether it appropriate,
Klaas Tuinman M.A.
Life Self-Empowerment Facilitation
at Dawn Cove Abbey
Comments and Questions are welcomed