Real vs. false guilt
How do you know if what you’re experiencing is real or false guilt?
The way I look at it, you can feel guilty for two reasons. And one of those reasons is a healthy response and the other is grounded in something false.
Appropriate guilt is simply this: feeling bad for something you did wrong.
i.e., I cheated on a math test, I wasn’t truthful with a friend, I borrowed money and never paid them back, or I said something ugly to someone that hurt their feelings.
Should you feel bad? Yes. But should you condemn yourself for things you’ve done wrong? No.
This type of guilt should fuel you to action, not shame.
If you said something rude to a friend, apologize. If you never repaid someone, return to them what is owed.
You aren’t a bad person for doing these things; you just did a wrong thing.
This type of guilt is meant to correct our wrongs. Once you’ve righted your wrong, then you are free of guilt and can move on with your life.
Inappropriate guilt is often fueled by fear, obligation, and shame. This tactic is the type of things emotional manipulators use to get others to do what they want (or to keep them trapped).
This type of guilt is when you feel bad for something you didn’t do wrong.
An example of this might be when you assert yourself and stand up for yourself in an honoring and respectful way, and the other person makes you feel bad for doing so.
Or perhaps you say no in an appropriate situation and are shamed by another. You may even experience it because you did something another (controlling) person doesn’t like.
False guilt is when you feel guilty for things that are other people’s responsibility. It’s when you say sorry for mistakes other people have made, or things outside of your control. It’s when all of your decisions are made out of a place of guilt.
You may feel guilty for just existing.
If you tend to be fueled by guilt most of the time, most of your life, in most of your interactions, then I would venture to say it’s highly likely that it’s inappropriate guilt.
“A great way to tell if you are experiencing inappropriate guilt is to ask yourself if you are feeling bad by holding a boundary, or otherwise acting in a way that you need to in order to keep yourself safe and sane. If this is the case, then odds are there is some manipulation going on, because normal, healthy people don’t have a problem with other people’s boundaries. They respect them and then adjust accordingly. If you’re setting a boundary upsets someone in your life (especially a person who is crazy-making, controlling, or otherwise abusive), pay close attention to this, because you just found the line for where their respect for you ends.” (Dana Morningstar, Out of the Fog, p. 194).
This type of guilt comes from an un-dealt wound. Someone who grew up in a healthy, stable environment doesn’t experience extreme, inappropriate guilt as I’ve mentioned above.
If this is you, I will encourage you to ask yourself - what will life be like if I keep living like this? Do I want to make all my decisions for the rest of my life out of guilt?
Or would you like to live a life where you make decisions for yourself, not others? Where you can consider others without forgetting yourself in the process. And you can live a life free of inappropriate guilt!