Do you spend hours worrying that you said or did the wrong thing and may have hurt someone’s feelings? Do you obsess over mistakes you made? Do you take responsibility for things outside of your control and feel guilty that you couldn’t do more? Do you agonize over saying no to someone and/or continually agree to do things you don’t want to?
If any of these questions ring true, you might be someone who struggles with excessive guilt.
Guilt is a pretty common phenomenon. Generally, it’s a signal to us that we’ve done something against our values, or in the case of excessive guilt, we’ve done something that we perceive as being “bad.” It’s a type of moral code created by us, our families, our cultures, our society, etc. If we follow this code, we feel good. If we break this code, we feel bad and experience guilt. While guilt doesn’t always feel nice, it is important for us to have moral codes that we live by. Establishing “right and wrong” and having empathy for others is what makes us human. So, you could argue that guilt does have its place in our world.
Often when people feel guilt, you’re able to notice that you’ve made a choice that doesn’t quite align with how you want to behave in life. For example, if you plan to take your dogs on a walk in the morning, but sleep in instead, you might feel some guilt. Your moral code is telling you that your dogs are important to you and that they need a walk before a long day at home. If you’re able to take into consideration why you’ve experienced guilt and then let it go, that’s normal guilt. If it escalates to thinking that you’re terrible dog owner, that your dogs have an awful life, they deserve someone better, and other obsessive thoughts that intensify the low-key guilt you felt in the beginning, that’s excessive guilt.
Excessive guilt is associated with concerns such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD, eating disorders, shame, and perfectionism. Not only is it unpleasant to experience, but it can also have quite the impact on our self worth, confidence, and personal growth. When we spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over mistakes and feeling guilty, it impacts how we interact with others and what risks we are willing to take in life. If we know that making a mistake means we’ll feel awful, we start to avoid people and situations that may create guilt. We may pull away from people or things we love or become intense people pleasers.
As I mentioned earlier, many people who struggle with excessive guilt often “perceive” that they’ve done something wrong. This could be as simple as seeing their partner in a bad mood and automatically assuming they have done something to make their partner unhappy. See how that can result in some people-pleasing behaviors? What have I done? How can I make it better? If the guilt doesn’t fit the situation, there often isn’t an answer of how to make it better.
Excessive guilt leads to anxiety and self-deprecation. Anxiety and self-deprecation may lead to a loss of motivation and feeling of hopelessness or an intense desire to make things “right” and do everything correctly. Either way, it sets you up to fail. If someone takes responsibility for others and has unrealistic expectations for themselves, they will find themselves back in excessive guilt when it inevitably does not work out. On the other hand, feelings of hopelessness, poor self-esteem, and lack of motivation also tend to fuel feelings of guilt. Both become a never-ending cycle of unpleasant emotions.
Although the description of a never-ending cycle seems a bit dreary, there is good news. It’s actually a cycle we can interrupt and change. We don’t have to live with excessive guilt all of our lives. By reframing the way we think and address ourselves, others, and problems we can change our reactions and emotions. We’ll talk more about that in a later post, but if guilt is controlling your life, don’t hesitate to reach out for help!