As children, we learn to negotiate between the guideposts of "right" and "wrong" behaviors. When we fail and wander into the arena of "wrong," then a scolding from a parent, teacher or other authority figure stops us from continuing down that path, and the feelings of guilt and shame that follow are painful enough to restrain us from repeating the offensive behavior.
In the context of a sane, stable environment, guilt is a positive emotion. It helps maintain the fabric of society and ensures that the trust that is necessary for interpersonal relationships isn't broken. When individuals voluntarily adhere to a common set of standards and values, society is orderly, functional and works without pressure or coercion from a strong authoritarian presence. In short, when guilt is appropriate, it serves to expand personal freedom for all because individuals make choices based on their inner directives (some call it a moral compass), rather than relinquishing their autonomy to a leader who directs every step so as to maintain social integrity.
But there are individuals who feel guilty for events for which they are not responsible. Irrational, inappropriate guilt is an emotional obstacle for many individuals, many of whom are intrinsically good people who demand more of themselves than they reasonably should. These people live to flagellate themselves daily for alleged failings, and the result is that they harbor an emotional maelstrom of anxiety, anger and fear that can be crippling. Irrational guilt is an emotional problem that needs to be addressed in order to improve the quality of relationships and the overall quality of life.
Constant feelings of guilt and shame can be part of a larger cluster of symptoms that stem from medical disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders or clinical depression. If other factors point toward one or more of these disorders such as sleep problems (insomnia or sleeping too much), eating disorders (anorexia or emotionally-driven overeating), fatigue, loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable, and difficulty concentrating then speaking with a mental health professional would be a good start in conquering irrational guilt. A psychiatrist or physician would be able to prescribe medication to mitigate the symptoms; a psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist would help to redirect the entrenched thought patterns through some form of "talk therapy." It may also help if the individual modifies their diet. Dr. Daniel Amen, among others, has done extensive research into the effects of diet, supplementation and exercise on brain chemistry. His works are widely available and easily understood by the layman. Many of the changes he recommends are also those suggested by other health professionals: eat more fruits and vegetables, reduce red meat and animal fats in the diet, eliminate caffeine and sugary drinks, exercise for an hour daily (it increases blood flow to the brain and creates endorphins, which are nature's 'feel good' chemicals), and be sure to ingest the proper amount of omega-3 fatty acids, Co-Q 10, B and D vitamins daily.
Irrational guilt can also be a learned response. Children raised in an environment in which rigid and inflexible standards are maintained and who are not offered love or encouragement unless they are "perfect" often learn to feel guilty for not living up to parental standards. Other authority figures may contribute to these feelings as well – too often, religious leaders emphasize the "sin" part of the Scriptures and minimize the "compassion" part, only to have congregants who feel unworthy of any good thing that comes their way, and who may be wracked with guilt and regret for minor lapses in behavior that can be corrected easily. Finally, there is the egregious and destructive influence of a parent, spouse or other significant person who may have a personality disorder and constantly scapegoats one or more individuals. These people are incredibly toxic, as they are shrewd in ferreting out their victim's weaknesses and use words as weapons that target those vulnerabilities for the purpose of manipulating and debasing that person. We have all encountered these individuals – they're the ones who believe that everyone "owes" them something, who demand constant attention, who can't possibly acknowledge the good, decent and positive things done by others but relish the opportunity to broadcast everyone's mistakes and failures. Sadly, people who have a finely-honed conscience and make the effort to uphold high standards are most often these people's targets; manipulative people see decency as weakness, and they find weakness repulsive. Irrationality breeds more irrationality, and regularly interacting with a toxic personality ultimately results in adopting some level of toxicity in order to cope.
Luckily, guilt that is learned can be unlearned. The first step in this process should be to examine and confront the beliefs that trigger feelings of guilt. For example, is it really necessary to line up all of the cups on the shelf in precise order? Who is harmed if that standard isn't met? Unless there is another person using the cups with OCD, then there is no person nor is any sense of aesthetics harmed by a little disorder. Will saying "no" to a request for time or resources that would better be allocated elsewhere cause a catastrophe? In most cases, the answer to that is no. Another person will be asked and will step forward, or the project will be put on hold. Begin to assess the beliefs that trigger irrational guilt and make changes where they are needed.
Second, learn to accept personal limitations. No one is perfect, although most people strive toward some ideal of perfection. Every person has strengths and weaknesses, and in a free market, people who are better at doing what another is not can be hired, either as an employee or a consultant. A person should work toward improving skills that are necessary for day-to-day survival, but shouldn't feel shame if they don't become an expert. For example, an individual that is bad at money management does need to learn some basics from someone with that skill. However, they are in good company if every year they take their receipts, W-2s and 1099 forms to H & R Block for tax filings, or they sit down with someone at a bank on a regular basis for a little advice on improving returns on savings. At the same time, people should applaud those things they do well. Learning to accept limitations is liberating and actually can propel a person toward greater achievement. A person no longer feels compelled to waste a lot of time on things they aren't particularly good at or interested in doing and spend more time working with their gifts. Freedom from guilt over not being "perfect" allows a person to become a blessing to others.
Finally, to deal with a toxic individual who can't be avoided or eliminated, (a parent, for example), a person needs to learn to change the rules of the game. Toxic people act and anticipate a certain reaction in return; the victim of a toxic person can change the game by not giving them what they expect. This turnaround will create drama and chaos in the relationship, but it's the kind of chaos that breaks down old structures and leaves room for new ones to be built. Bringing about this level of radical change may require working with a skilled counselor who will help a client retool and revamp using techniques such as role playing, rational-emotive therapy or hypnosis; many of the thoughts, attitudes and behaviors that need to be unlearned and replaced with more constructive ones have been entrenched for years. The end result – a more empowered individual with a healthy sense of self - will be well worth the investment of time and money.
Irrational guilt doesn't have to be a prison; taking baby steps toward better emotional health is the key to unlocking the door and releasing the truly beautiful person within.
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