Author: Vasileios N. Kiosses
Psychologist – Person-Centred Counsellor
Like little demons they sneak into the darkest parts of your thoughts, ready to condemn every reflection, every action, motivation, feeling. Guilt, remorse, need for self-punishment. How many times do we constantly confront the questioning of our own self? How many times do other people and the ways to please them become our priority?
These thoughts become stronger and stronger and build a small but brave armor, which after a certain point turns into an automation. How much do we need to determine this automation, which in no way serves our own needs?
Being fully aware of how we function, in our attempt to focus on those habits which are eating us up inside, we can establish a more favorable way of thinking and living.
The human brain has great abilities, and it has the flexibility to cultivate new, more substantial habits. We just need to test it. We somehow need to “educate” it on new, more effective ways of thinking and acting.
Guilt is an emotion which causes us intense discomfort (along with shame) and unfortunately we learn it very early. “Eat all your food, because children in Ethiopia are starving!” or worse “I work so much in order to take care of you and you are complaining?”. While we are growing to adults, such messages are coded and processed into feelings of worthlessness. We are not sufficient for anything or we cannot do well at anything. Guilt can work quite protectively when it comes to hurting others or our deepest values. But when guilt is transformed into a mode of existence, it is able to infect any feeling of joy or happiness. Research shows that there is only one kind of “good guilt”, that which results from actions being aimed at others. If I betray somebody I care about, or if I am being selfish towards them, the guilt can be an inhibitory factor, preventing me from repeating it. But there are many cases where guilt works counterproductively, harms relationships and crushes self-esteem. Like the guilt that I don’t help someone when I have already helped them enough or I see that they are not accepting their responsibilities. The guilt I am experiencing when I have more money or better relationships than the rest members of my family or my friends. The guilt for things that I actually haven’t done, but just thought, for example for the jealousy I felt when a friend of mine bought a house or found a job.
We incriminated joy, we went so far as to feel bad if we win or obtain something. We felt bad because an attempt of ours was rewarded or because something was freely given to us. We went so far as to solely exist through what is happening to people around us. So we managed to get our self-esteem down to its knees, feeling that we are doing something wrong, that we are ungrateful or selfish.
We can succeed in fighting this guilt, the one that does not help at all, as long as we remember that the way we relate to people around us -therefore our actions- harms or favors. The thoughts that can coexist are not able to define our identity.
Why don’t you try feeling grateful before you feel bad about it…
Fischer, K. W., Shaver, P. R., & Carnochan, P. (1990). How emotions develop and how they organise development. Cognition And Emotion, 4, 81-127.