Guilt is a painful emotion. Tom and Joe are two men in their 20s. They are fictional characters but struggle with a similar issue that I have seen in many patients. For our purposes, I will define guilt as a sad emotion in which a person feels that something about himself is wrong.
Tom has been married for two years. He and his wife are expecting their first child. Unfortunately, they are also having marital problems. Tom has been having an affair for 2 months. He has been keeping it a secret and hasn’t had any consequences for his betrayal. Tom doesn’t feel right emotionally. He feels sad and when he talks with his wife, feels shame.
True guilt has some of the following characteristics
- A defined offense against another person
- Self-destructive behavior
- Violation of one’s moral and spiritual beliefs
- The above behaviors were intentional and could have been prevented
Joe feels sad most of the time and can’t measure up to others’ expectations for him. He is in his 20s and his career isn’t going anywhere. Joe isn’t married and doesn’t know if he ever will be. He can’t think of anything he has done wrong but believes he is a bad person.
False guilt has some of the following characteristics
- An offense can’t be easily identified
- A person is bad because of who is, not because of what he has done
- A person has not harmed others or himself
- The person has not had any intent for the difficult situation and could not have prevented it
Healing from Guilt
The healing process for both true guilt and false guilt is similar. I will put these terms in the context of Christian Spirituality, but these terms could be changed for those who are not religious
- Healing from guilt often happens best in the context of healthy relationships. Both with other people and with God.
- Healing from guilt involves having a better understanding of self, others, and the world (at least one of these, and often all 3).
- Healing from guilt involves changing unhealthy thinking patterns:
- False guilt is often focused on “who I am is bad”.
- True guilt is often focused on “I can continue engaging in “insert whatever behavior” without consequence.
Both of these thinking patterns must change to a more realistic understanding.
- Healing from guilt often involves changing unhealthy behaviors
- True guilt involves a destructive behavior pattern that should change — either neglecting a responsibility or engaging in a behavior that should be stopped
- False guilt is often paralyzing, leading to fewer and fewer behaviors that could help a person be healthy.
- Healing from guilt often involves spiritual disciplines, such as confession, prayer, and acts of service.
- True guilt — Spiritual insight will help a person recognize the need for repentance and in many cases, making amends to others.
- False guilt — Spiritual insight will help a person recognize their value in God’s eyes and can be a step towards this person valuing him or herself.
Healthcare professionals recognize the destructive nature of guilt. Many articles have been written on how to better understand and cope with guilt. WebMD, and PsychCentral are two examples of many websites that have helpful information about coping with guilt. These resources contain useful information, but often do not refer to spirituality, which for many people, is central to healing from guilt.
When struggling with guilt, try to find others who can help you in your healing process. If you are fortunate to have healthy friends and family in your life who will listen and mentor you, reach out to them. Consider seeing a Christian Counselor to help you in your recovery from guilt.