Action Consulting and Therapy: Sorting out guilt

We’ve all done or said something that later we wished we wouldn’t have.

As a result, we may feel guilty. Guilt can come to a rapid resolution by making an apology or amends. If left unaddressed, guilt can seed itself in our lives and grow into avoidance, poor self-esteem or shame.

These negative outcomes can increase the intensity of guilt and possibly cause depression or anxiety. It can gnaw at us, keep us awake at night or cause us to avoid the person or place that was affected by our negative behavior. These are just some of the concerns that are frequently addressed in counseling around this topic.

When a person experiences guilt, there is a conflict going on between one’s belief system and their behavior. What we were taught to do versus what we did or are doing. Since we cannot usually reverse a behavior that’s already done, in order to resolve the guilt we need to decide which side of the conflict is causing the problem. “Do I agree with the beliefs I’m holding that are telling me this is wrong?” Or “Is my behavior objectively OK and my belief system unhealthy?”

If you are younger than 18 and reading this article, you likely will benefit from asking yourself an additional question: “What are the consequences of my actions and how will my parent(s) react if I reject their value system?” In reality, this is a question for all of us: What are the consequences with parents, work, partners, children, health, etc.? If the chosen behavior is truly inconsequential or can be deemed healthy, then the belief system may change and adapt to resolve the guilt.

No matter your age or the source of your guilt, acknowledging the conflict is essential. Take time to journal or to call a friend to say: “I’m feeling guilty because ________.” The stated reason will be representative of your wrongdoing, but also will reveal the conflict and the value system that’s been betrayed.

Our beliefs come from what we were taught as children, what we learned in school and/or church and through cultural and social norms. As we grow and change, so can our belief system. I often ask clients: “Whose voice are you hearing telling you you’re wrong?” and, “Do you agree with the messages that voice is sending you?” If you stand by your value system, guilt can be a valuable emotion by providing insight and motivating you to change your behavior.

On the other hand, if your belief system can adapt to your behavior without negative consequences, it may be time to change your internal value system to support what you like doing. If your behavior can get you into trouble, or you don’t like yourself when you “act that way,” changing your behavior is generally recommended. In either case, practice gratitude for developing the insight to resolve the guilt.

Lynette Spencer is a licensed clinical social worker and is the managing partner at Action Consulting and Therapy in Geneva.