By Rachel Factor LCSW
When I work with high-striving individuals I am often aware that they berate themselves and fall prey to feelings of excessive guilt. This is different than healthy guilt, which is felt in response to doing something wrong. The individual who has healthy guilt makes amends and moves on. Healthy guilt can also be a deterrent from carrying out negative behaviors. This article will focus on excessive guilt as many experience it.
Intellectually, most people realize that excessive guilt isn’t helpful and that is often immobilizing. However, some feel that if they make a mistake they must suffer the consequences and must make themselves feel really bad as a punishment for their mistake. As result their personal, religious and professional lives often suffer.
For example, Chana, in a tired state, reacts strongly when her daughter forgot her homework sheet in school. She says words that she wishes she had not said. Afterwards, Chana, a usually loving mother, feels so guilty she doesn’t know what to do with herself. She feels like a terrible person and doesn’t feel worthy of being around people. She isolates herself because of her perceived unworthiness. She feels that her children are perhaps better off having no mother than a mother who can be hurtful. Chana’s routine davening becomes more difficult as she feels uncomfortable standing before G-d. She feels unworthy of being in His presence. A co-worker calls her for advice. She feels too depressed to talk. She also feels like a hypocrite offering advice when she herself is so flawed and imperfect.
Really, at the right time, it would be correct for Chana to apologize to her daughter. She can resolve to try her best to be more careful when she is tired. Nonetheless, mistakes will happen and we need to be able to cope with them. Mistakes can be humbling as they remind us that we are human and by nature imperfect. Only G-d is perfect and makes no mistakes.
Excessive guilt is like taking a hammer and banging it over your head again and again; you just keep hurting yourself and nothing good comes from it. After Chana takes responsibility for her mistake she needs to accept her imperfect self and move on.
Some people feel guilty for experiencing negative feelings such as jealousy, or annoyance or being judgmental towards others. Feeling guilty over these feelings doesn’t eradicate them. It is more helpful at times like this to get curious with oneself and wonder what this could be about. Once we perceive that these feelings are coming from within and not as a reaction to a situation, we open ourselves up to the answers as to why we are truly feeling this way. Often it is insecurity on our part that keeps these negative feelings alive.
People also have feelings of guilt when they say no to a request. For example, Yair is routinely called on by friends in their time of need because everyone knows that he never says no. Over time Yair begins to realize that he is growing resentful and he isn’t tending to his own needs. He decides that he needs to learn to say no sometimes. The first time he does so he feels overwhelmed with guilt. He feels as if he has done a horrible deed. Over time, Yair learns to handle this uncomfortable feeling as he understands that he needs to take care of himself in order to be able to be there for others. We often take on more than we can handle because we want to do good, and saying “no” can be followed by that uncomfortable feeling of guilt. It is important to remember that we are human and we can only do what we can.
As people, we want to utilize our gift of free will in going about our lives. We want to be able to tap into our internal wisdom to guide us. Excessive guilt will improperly guide our decisions and become our master. Excessive guilt imprisons us and keeps us stuck in the past, locked in our minds, as prisoners of our emotions. It does not allow us to develop into who we can truly be. Life is a gift. Let’s use it to its fullest!