How Guilty Do You Feel?

girl-looking-out-windowPeople often come into therapy talking about what bad people they are and go on to describe the “horrible” things they have done. Their language is often extremely pathologizing and they feel they deserve to beat themselves up. They are filled with shame, believing that their behavior shows what a bad person they are.

A good therapist will listen in a nonjudgmental way and help the person to see that a person is not their behavior. We are so much more than our behavior. I also like to explain to clients the difference between “healthy guilt”, “neurotic guilt” and “shame”. When we experience healthy guilt, we are essentially saying, “Ok, I messed up. I violated a value that I have that says….blacking out, cheating on my boyfriend, lying to my parents, you fill in the blank…is wrong. I am not happy with this behavior, so I need to take some steps to self-correct.”

When we feel healthy guilt, we recognize our behavior is hurtful to ourselves and others and we have the self-esteem to take the steps to change our behavior and get back to what we value. However, when we feel shame for our behavior, we get stuck in believing ourselves to be bad people. We can’t even take steps to correct our behavior because we feel way too horrible about ourselves.

Shame is a symptom of self-hate and hating ourselves never helps us. Feeling healthy guilt, on the other hand, is a normal, healthy response. There is another form of guilt that is not as debilitating as shame, but not good for us. This is “neurotic guilt”. This form of guilt can be easily confused with the more productive kind of healthy guilt, because we really feel that we failed or violated one of our values and that we deserve to feel guilty. But this usually consists more of risking someone being unhappy with us.

For example, if my husband wants to me go out with him on a Friday night when I am completely drained from my week at work, and I say no, but sit home the whole night feeling guilty about it, that is neurotic guilt. I don’t feel entitled to say no in order to take care of myself, and am very uncomfortable risking his disapproval. This is a symptom of being a people-pleaser, where we put others’ wants and needs above our own and when we actually try to stand up for ourselves or take care of ourselves, our neurotic guilt kicks in.

I advise people to treat themselves gently, to take good care of themselves, and to stop beating themselves up for their behavior. Once we stop hating themselves, or wallowing in neurotic guilt, we can begin to see what caused us to behave in a way that we are disappointed in. Treating ourselves the way we would treat our best friend can help us get some perspective in this situation. We would never use the pathologizing language with our friends that we do with ourselves. We would not judge our friends as harshly as we do ourselves. We usually believe our friends to be “good” people who make mistakes. Why can’t we see ourselves in such a forgiving light?

If you are stuck in self-hate or people-pleasing instead of self-care and are finding it difficult to change behaviors that you feel are hurting you, consider therapy to help you get beyond self-hate or neuroticism and to nurture yourself. A good therapist can teach you to recognize the difference between shame, neurotic guilt, and healthy guilt and help you make better sense of your behaviors.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

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