By: Nadine Jans, MSc. RCC Clinical and Health Psychology, Founder Calm Caregiving Blueprint
Guilt has been a common theme for me—I’ve been feeling guilty most of my life.
I often didn’t really know why, but if you could look inside my head and listen to my thoughts, you would hear that I was feeling guilty because I thought I was bad, wrong, or not good enough.
I remember how I would tell my friends that I was sorry for any and all wrong I had done to them.
They would look at me with quizzical expressions as I explained that I just wished I was a better friend.
One friend told me I didn’t do anything wrong and that there was no need to feel guilty. It made me feel better and relieved.
But the guilt always came back—about other things, things I could have done better. I didn’t want to have those emotions, because it felt so awful. I wanted to be a better person.
Feeling like that made me sad and frustrated. I always worried, and I had difficulty enjoying life.
Guilt is like a heavy chain that you drag around with you every day. It’s exhausting, and it made me feel small, weak, and depressed.
The biggest problem with guilt is that your mind convinces you that your feelings of not being good enough are the truth—because I feel guilty, there must be a reason for it. I must have done something wrong.
You may take steps to try to forget these thoughts, or you may try to distract yourself from them. While others may use alcohol, sports, cleaning, or medication to cope, for me the chosen distraction was food.
The healthier option, however, is to find the courage to dive deep into your thoughts, look for the underlying source of the guilt, and think about how you can solve it.
Of course, you will find situations you think could have gone better. This can sometimes help, but often it takes you deeper into a rabbit hole.
The truth is, hindsight leads us to believe things could have gone better, when in reality we can’t turn back time and test our theories, and we will never know how things could have worked out differently—and it doesn’t matter anyway.
It’s been a few years since I became better at handling my own feelings of guilt, but I still have them. However, when the guilt shows up now, I am able to listen, manage, and make wise decisions.
I’m also able to look past the guilt to see what’s good and beautiful in my life, and I’ve developed a healthy relationship with myself.
I believe this growth from guilt is possible for all of us, and I want to take you through the steps that helped me. I know that many family members and friends of people with dementia struggle with guilt.
Before you can get let go of feelings of guilt, you need to understand one important question:
What, exactly, is guilt?
Well, to begin with, it’s a very difficult emotion—so difficult that we’d usually rather ignore it than hone in on it.
However, listening to the guilt is exactly how we learn to stop its power over us.
Guilt comes in many different shapes and forms, but there are actually two classifiable types:
helpful (healthy) guilt and unhelpful (unhealthy) guilt.
Helpful guilt is a feeling of discomfort that arises after you’ve done something that is OBJECTIVELY wrong, like stealing, hitting someone or breaking a promise.
It’s healthy because it helps you correct yourself after you’ve made a mistake (and we all make mistakes).
Helpful guilt can help you restore and grow relationships, both with others and with yourself.
⇒ The way to deal with healthy guilt is to recognize it and think of a plan to resolve the issue. This often involves:
⇒ Taking responsibility for your actions
⇒ Apologizing or asking for forgiveness
⇒ Working out a plan to restore the relationship if possible
⇒ Working out a plan to prevent it from happening again (If emotions led to the incident, you may need a break or help with coping, practical support, etc.)
⇒ Recognize your values and who you want to be. This gives you direction.
⇒ Make decisions in the direction of your values.
⇒ Be gentle with yourself. It’s about the steps forward and the process, not the result.
⇒ Restoring the relationship
Unhelpful guilt, on the other hand, is a feeling of discomfort about something you’ve done that does not meet your irrationally high standards.
For example, if you run into an acquaintance at a coffee shop and can’t remember his or her name, and you berate yourself all day with thoughts of guilt over your forgetfulness and find it hard to let go, you’re falling victim to unhelpful guilt.
This type of guilt can come in many different shapes and forms, and it’s prevalent among caregivers.
It’s a feeling that can be constantly present or one that comes in overwhelming waves.
Many different factors play a role, but it’s the irrationally high standards and difficulty meeting them that is at the core.
Societal expectations can also play into unhealthy guilt.
We live in an age where always being happy and organized is the standard, but something is fundamentally wrong—we don’t talk about the bad and the ugly.
We only talk about the good.
We’re inundated with advertisements that only present perfection and make us feel inferior if we’re not perfect.
We’ve been conditioned to ask, “How are you?” but to expect only one answer: “Great!”
The subtle messages of expected perfection have left our society as a whole weighed down by unhelpful guilt stemming from irrationally high standards.
The good news is that you don’t have to let these standards control your emotions.
When it comes to guilt, the ultimate factor is just how wrong a certain action is.
Ask yourself, are you actually doing something objectively wrong that warrants your healthy guilt?
Or is it your inner critic talking? Are your thoughts representing irrationally high standards involved with unhealthy guilt ?
When you are tired, stressed, and overwhelmed with emotions, you are not at your best, and you will not respond to situations the same as when you’re relaxed and at peace.
Therefore, when you feel guilty because you’re not operating at maximum potential, please be gentle with yourself.
Forgive yourself (and others) and try to remember that each moment is a new opportunity to let go of what doesn’t benefit you and grow into a better (and less guilt-ridden) person.
A step-by-step process to let go of the power of guilt will be available soon, so stay tuned!