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A proud son of the South Wales Valleys, Stephen Truelove is a mindset coach with 18 years experience, author of A Journey of Discovery and Self-Learning and developer of the Love Life Love You process – Breaking Limitations.
He has experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows of life and now works with people to tackle anxiety, depression, phobias and other limiting mindsets. Stephen Truelove shares his life story, advice and goals for the future.
Guilt, with its cousin shame, is a many-headed monster and the qualities we need to tackle it are summed up in the well-known words:
The serenity to accept what we can’t change, the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
According to The Independent, the average Brit spends six hours a week feeling guilty. The pubs are full of people running away from guilt and feeling even worse afterwards. The cafes are full of people eating more cake because they’ve already broken their new year diet. So what is this thing called guilt and shouldn’t it make us behave better rather than worse?
The psychology of guilt
At its most basic, guilt is a kind of fear that lives in the oldest part of the brain, which evolved to help us stay safe by predicting what stronger people and animals may do if we step on their toes or pull their tails. We are a social species and understanding how our actions can hurt or upset others is a sign of healthy psychological development.
Rather than beating ourselves up, we need to focus on how to actually help ourselves and others. Understanding guilty feelings as a source of information about our place in the world is a lot less scary than just feeling terrible without understanding why.
Feeling guilty isn’t always bad, then?
As Shakespeare put it, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. And when it comes to emotional health there’s no such thing as a good or bad feeling. It’s what we make of it that counts.
Dealing with an emotion directly is much more effective than trying to ignore it – there’s room for only so much dust under the carpet. To be the best version of ourselves, we need to take control of our past. We can’t change what happened, but we can change how we deal with it and how it affects our lives.
And remember, the person who can let you off the guilt hook is yourself, not anyone else.
Guilt trips and fake apologies
People manipulate others by creating guilty feelings to get their own way. “Finish your dinner – think of the starving millions.” “After all we’ve done for you…” (the devil is in the dots!) Beware, too, of the fake apology: “I’m really sorry for blah blah blah”, followed immediately by “But you always/never…” Guilt tripping may work for a while, but it builds up so much resentment there may eventually be little relationship left to save.
So how can I stop feeling guilty about everything all the time?
First, make sure you actually have something to feel guilty about, then decide how to deal with it and dump the rest.
Most of us live with many layers of different beliefs, some of them contradictory or not rational at all. Some people even feel guilty about things they don’t believe in at all. How many high-flying women have been socialised into feeling deep down that they should be perfect home makers as well? How many gentle, hard working men believe they should be masters of DIY and able to fight monsters with their bare hands to protect their family? Sounds daft put like that, but if we look carefully enough we all harbour outdated and even conflicting beliefs about what we ought to do or be.
If our underlying belief system is realistic and helps us move forward, it can be very helpful. If it undermines everything we do, it is highly damaging.
Children and Guilt
Guilt is a conditioned response that we learn from parents, guardians, teachers and the culture we grow up in. Children given little praise and lots of blame may grow up believing they are basically bad and nothing they do will ever be good enough. Lack of love brings feelings of worthlessness and lifelong problems with giving and receiving love without the person ever really understanding what they did wrong.
For a small child, little things loom large. I remember pinching sixpence from the little mug in the china cabinet and buying a chocolate bar. I actually confessed to my Mam when I was 35. Sounds sweet and rather funny now, but to a six-year-old the guilt was huge.
Small children also can’t yet distinguish between fantasy and reality. If they think a bad thing about someone and something bad happens, they may think it must be their fault. They may also feel responsible for their parents splitting up or even for not being the girl/boy their parents were hoping for in the first place.
Helping children develop healthy reactions.
Children tend to internalise parental values uncritically, so never tell a child they are bad, only that something they’ve done needs to be put right. “That was a naughty thing to do – give your friend their toy back” allows things to be put right and a lesson to be learnt. “You’re a bad boy/girl – go to your room” affects the child’s very sense of self-worth and may eventually create an irrational belief that they will always get things wrong and everyone will think badly of them.
Some people grow up feeling that any kind of pleasure is somehow wrong, while others are always on the lookout in case they get “found out” – often with no idea what it is they’re so worried about anyone finding out.
Children and shame.
What we now call “body shaming” is a bit like guilt tripping in that the aim is to make others, especially teenagers, feel bad about themselves – boys too skinny, girls not skinny enough, compared with Photoshopped ideals on social media. Kids may even make up a fake personality and appearance and become ashamed of their real selves and unable to make real friends. This is serious stuff and very difficult for developing youngsters to handle. At worst it can lead to anorexia, self-harm, isolation and even suicide – sadly all too prevalent in south Wales.
How do I know if my feelings are rational and justified?
First, it can help to separate out the different kinds of guilt you may be feeling.
Guilt for something you actually did.
This is perfectly normal and healthy. The problems start when you dwell on it. Just accept that it happened, make amends if you can, and think how to avoid it happening again. Problem drinking or compulsive eating may be worth getting support with; likewise, constant all-pervading guilt.
Guilt for something you didn’t do, but would like to.
Repression and denial may actually make it more likely to happen. Better to accept that such thoughts are part of us and commit to making sure we don’t act on them.
Guilt for something we think we did.
This can bring as much or more guilt than actually doing something wrong. So before launching into an orgy of self-blame, make sure the offence actually happened and that it really was your fault.
Guilt for all the good we didn’t do
However much we do for others, even if we’re neglecting our own lives as a result, it’s somehow never enough. Decide how much you can realistically do and stick to it, however much pressure others may apply. Acting out of guilt will just drain you further and make you less effective.
Guilt at doing better than others equally or more deserving.
The classic example is survivor guilt when others have been injured or died. Or first generation college students may feel guilty compared with parents and siblings who willingly made sacrifices to get them there. At worst, it can lead to behaviour that undermines their very success.
OK, suppose the offence did happen and it really was my fault.
Sometimes it takes very little to put things right. It’s just a matter of taking the first small step. But most of us need help knowing where to start – I certainly did.
When you’ve worked out how much of your guilt is rational, if you still feel you’ve failed someone, ask yourself a few more questions. Can you put it right? If yes, then do. If not, think how to avoid anything similar happening again and move on.
Putting things right means making amends, not just saying sorry and dumping the burden on someone else. Before you launch into an orgy of confession and self-abasement, ask yourself who it will make feel better – the other person or yourself? If the latter, think about how you can treat them better in the future and commit to that. They will soon notice the difference.
What if I can’t make amends because it was so long ago or the other person is dead?
Try writing a letter to your supposed “victim” (they don’t have to be alive or even human, just someone or something you feel you damaged and haven’t forgiven yourself for). Put it somewhere safe where you can re-read it from time to time till the pain has gone. You may also find ways to make amends for what went wrong, if not to the original “victim”, then to the world in general. Random acts of kindness can have an amazing impact.
One sad example I heard of involved a young woman left paraplegic after a road accident. The driver, her best friend, was unharmed physically but broke off all contact because he felt so guilty. The young woman, now in her fifties, has long since dealt with that and a lot of other things besides, but her friend will feel bad for the rest of his life – to the benefit of absolutely no one.
I’m a grandfather now, but when I was a small boy I used to chase my little brother away if he tagged along when I wanted to play with my friends. Nothing unusual there, and as adults we got on fine. But when something triggered that early memory recently I felt really terrible. I couldn’t apologise in person because my brother was killed in a road accident in his thirties, so I wrote to him. Based on a poem I saw by a young girl whose friend committed suicide at age 14, this is what emerged:
The words do not come easy
But it’s something I must say:
I don’t think I ever told you
I wish I’d let you play.
Just putting things into words, separating them out from the muddle in the bottom of our minds, can have a powerful impact. Try it and see.
Make friends with guilt – it’s your best way of learning to do better next time.
Don’t assume that if you fall short once you’re doomed. Accept that you’re only human, learn the lesson and carry on. Hate what you did by all means, but hating yourself won’t help anyone at all. And the same applies when others upset you – you don’t have to go on being best friends, but don’t be carrying a huge burden of hate around forever after.
You can’t please everyone all the time, only some people some of the time – and don’t forget to include yourself. Compassion, like charity, begins at home.
Finally, a wise and compassionate new year wish from a consultant clinical psychologist at Cardiff and Vale University Health Board: “Please encourage the good folk of Cardiff and beyond to go easy on themselves and show some self-compassion.”
Love Life Love You
36 West Bute Street, Cardiff Bay Cf10 5LH
Techniques Stephen uses include:
Hypnotherapy, Neuro Linguistic Programming, Emotional Freedom Techniques, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Emotional Coding, Emmett Technique, Reiki, Matrix Re-Imprinting.
Registered with GHR, CNHC and DBS.