Published Categorized as A look at one emotion

Illustrations by Sarah Jennings from How Are You Feeling Now? by Molly Potter

Guilt rattles us and is triggered by the little voice of our conscience. It’s the niggling feeling (that can be different volumes depending upon what we did) that tells us that we’ve done wrong and strayed across the boundaries of our own moral code. It triggers us to regret what we’ve done.

We evolved guilt for good reason. Social acceptability was key to not being kicked out of the tribe when staying in the tribe was a matter of survival. Guilt meant we learnt to stay palatable to the other people in our tribe. Transgression from acceptable behaviours and the feeling of guilt would soon tell us we were in the wrong and prevent us from repeating whatever we did. Guilt can drive us to behave better next time. It can also urge us to make reparations for any ‘damage’ we might have caused. In this way, although guilt is uncomfortable, it can be the instigator of positive change.

Guilt can also go awry though. We can feel guilty for things that don’t really warrant it – like not doing enough for someone, feeling responsible for others’ happiness and feeling guilty about their unhappiness or even feeling guilty for doing better than someone else. I suspect some people feel this kind of guilt more than others – especially ‘pleasers’. I also suspect that this is where guilt sidles up to shame. Guilt is feeling bad for having done something wrong and focuses on our behaviour whereas shame can make us feel rubbish about who we are and can knock our self-worth.

It actually seems quite bizarre that we can catch ourselves feeling guilty now and again because it’s not like we don’t know what is acceptable and unacceptable to us! Maybe guilt is often the result of poor impulse control and if we learned to listen to it rumbling as soon as it did, we might control those impulses!

We can also feel guilty in the wake of other emotions. We might feel guilty for hating someone or being envious of them. In this way guilt is almost like the law-keeper of uncomfortable emotions as well!

So when we feel guilty, like with all emotions, the first thing to do is be curious. Have you done something wrong and if so, how do you make amends? In most cases an apology will suffice but, in some cases, (e.g. breaking someone else’s possession) we might need to do something more practical (e.g. buy a replacement). This kind of guilt gives quite a clear message and the course of action for redemption is usually quite obvious. However, if the guilt has been triggered because you feel responsible for other people’s happiness – that needs bringing into awareness, challenging and letting go of – as the only person responsible for anyone’s happiness is themselves.

When considering guilt with children:

  • Discuss what guilt’s job is: to help us modify our behaviour. (With older children you could talk about why we evolved it.)
  • Talk about what it feels like inside the body when we experience guilt. Children say it can either arrive quickly in the moment or arrive slowly later when you’ve had time to think about what you did. They sometimes say it makes you want to shy away or put yourself on ‘pause’ (much like embarrassment).
  • Consider how guilt might make you behave if you don’t manage it well. (It can make you start behaving defensively or shiftily!)
  • Consider the’ guilty brain’ and how it niggles at you. Consider the message it is giving you. Did you do something wrong? What can you do to make things better? Is there someone you need to apologise to? What lessons have you learnt?
  • Talk about guilt being best address by acting upon it quickly. Accept you feel guilty, take full responsibility for what you did and set out to make amends! This is much better than dealing with a lingering feeling that you’re trying hard to ignore.