Do you ever find yourself weighed down by an unnecessary burden of guilt that lingers for too long? Or perhaps guilt overwhelms you when you need to ask for help or when you see ways in which life has been kinder to you than someone else.
Guilt is an emotion that most of us feel on occasion, and in certain situations, it can be a normal reaction. Guilt can be an appropriate response as it indicates that we are aware of our actions and their consequences.
Guilt can be an extremely uncomfortable emotion, thus people often take drastic actions to avoid this feeling. Unfortunately, this kind of avoidance may impede us from getting our needs met or prioritizing ourselves.
Intense and disproportionate feelings of guilt typically stem from childhood, and the messages we received about what it means to express our need, wants, and hopes.
Pervasive Guilt Begins in Childhood
The first step in understanding why we feel guilty is to recognize how we were taught to suppress our own needs in childhood. We may have been told that certain emotions or thoughts were wrong or inappropriate. We may have been taught that expressing anger was unacceptable, or that our ideas were not valid. This can lead us to internalize the message that our own needs are “too much” and should be kept hidden, even if on an unconscious level.
If a child’s needs for care, love, and support are frequently ignored they eventually learn that it’s wrong to want something. Once grown, the adult child may often feel guilty for requesting simple requests or needs. For example, requesting their partner’s attention when they are aware of the tough day they had at work, may send someone into such intense feeling of guilt they become anxious and irritable instead of simply asking for a hug.
Pervasive Guilt Inhibits Self Expression
Guilt-ridden mindsets can severely restrict us from expressing ourselves, taking risks, and seizing opportunities. If we were raised in an environment where criticism was common, then expressing ourselves freely or trying something new could be seen as risky behavior and make us feel vulnerable. As children, trying new things or making mistakes can also be met with judgment from those around us, so it becomes easier for us to assume that others think less favorably about us when we try something new or take risks.
Pervasive Guilt Inhibits Self-trust
Finally, feeling guilty could also stem from an inability to trust ourselves and rely on our judgment when making decisions. This could be due to messages from parents or authority figures who told us that only they know what’s best for us and that their advice should always be followed over ours. Feeling like our opinions don’t matter can lead us to doubt if we are capable of making good decisions in life and therefore leave us feeling guilty if we make decisions outside of what has been traditionally accepted as “right” or “wrong” behavior.
Guilt and Self-Sabotage
Guilt-tripping is a form of controlling behavior that parents may use on their children. Unfortunately, this can have devastating long-term consequences such as low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy. When faced with demanding expectations from parents who restrict them from exploring opportunities beyond what’s expected, these individuals often become perfectionists or display thoughts and behaviors which eventually lead to self-sabotage. This creates a vicious cycle of unachievable expectations and either burnout or the refusal to confront difficult circumstances because of the immense pressure and anxiety they evoke.
Guilt can come from many different sources but often its roots lie in the messages we received during childhood about suppressing our own needs and desires. Understanding where these feelings come from can help us learn how to better express ourselves without fear of judgment or criticism, trust ourselves more when making decisions, and ultimately feel more empowered in pursuing our goals and dreams.
Taking time to explore your relationship with guilt in therapy or with a trusted friend is a great way to increase your self-awareness and gain insight into why you may feel guilty at times—it’s one small step toward taking control of your life and shedding the spectator of pervasive guilt.
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